Is this the NIH Francis Collins wanted to create?

Late last week the Indian newspaper Live Mint, which is produced in collaboration with The Wall Street Journal, reported that the NIH had scrapped 40 clinical trials in India following a new set of rules governing drug studies. There's been a significant amount of controversy over the deaths of trial subjects, and the whole drug study business in the subcontinent has shriveled in the face of new government guidelines.  

The Live Mint piece, though, is based on sources. There was nothing from the NIH, or anyone else by name. So I dropped a quick email to the media office at the NIH to see if the agency would confirm or deny--a routine move for a reporter.

Amanda Fine at the NIH sent this prepared response back, with instructions not to attribute it to any one person.

"The people of the United States and India have benefited from over 40 years of productive medical research collaborations between our two countries, in multiple areas of biomedicine and public health, including clinical research. We believe the protection of research participants involved in clinical trials is an ethical imperative, and we commend the substantial efforts being made to review the oversight of clinical trials in India. We are following developments surrounding the amendments to the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, and are hopeful that additional information and guidance surrounding their implementation will pave the way for our continued joint endeavors."

Did you see an answer? Neither did I, though there's a hint in that last sentence. Hints, though, aren't very illuminating.

I've been writing stories for 35 years. Over that time, I've asked thousands and thousands of questions, including more than a few queries to government agencies. I'm not a prosecutor. I don't have subpoena powers. And unless there's a public source of information, I have to settle for yes, no or please go away because I'm not going to give you an answer.

I've heard "no comment" so many times, it splashes off me like gin and tonic slides off of rhino skin.  

But I don't get a lot of official gibberish in lieu of an answer. Maybe if I covered the State Department I would get more of this from young media contacts who had studied Richelieu at Princeton. But I always avoided on-the-record conversations with diplomats, when I had a chance to do that in Central America and the Caribbean as a contributor to The Dallas Morning News back in the early '80s.

So I responded, asking for a simple yes, no or no comment, and at the end of the day I finally got back … a repeat. You have your answer, wrote Ms. Fine.

The mighty Oz had spoken.

It's particularly appalling that this would come from the NIH, a government agency run by Francis Collins, a scientist whose whole career is built on honest inquiry. That sterling rep secured his appointment to run the NIH. The NIH plays an enormous role in funding and guiding academic research work. You can imagine how they would like to communicate with investigators who use this kind of cute, circular language. Why anyone at the NIH would think that this is appropriate now, as the agency struggles to come up with a sufficient budget to satisfy grant requests and pay for a shift to translational medicine, makes me wonder about their grip on reality.

Francis Collins has his own Twitter handle: @NIHDirector. There's even evidence that he uses it occasionally. Perhaps you'd like to join me in sending along a copy of this piece. -- John Carroll, Editor-in-Chief. Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.