The DHHS's Office of Inspector General has responsibilities for investigating complaints about waste, fraud, and abuse involving DHHS funds in areas such as Medicare and Medicaid payments and student loans. In a 1988 report on the handling of allegations of misconduct in science, OIG criticized the arrangements and procedures used at that time by the PHS and recommended that responsibilities for these matters be centralized (DHHS, 1989d). This report preceded the formation of OSI and OSIR.
The OIG provides specialized expertise and authority to OSI and OSIR in their efforts to address misconduct in science. If criminal behavior is suspected, OIG may issue subpoenas or provide access to restricted information in investigating charges of misconduct in science, and it has done so in at least one case (DHHS, 1991b).
The Public Health Service currently maintains the PHS ALERT system, which is a system of records identifying individual investigators and institutions that are under investigation for possible misconduct in science or who are subject to penalties for such misconduct. As of mid-January 1991, the PHS ALERT system had confidential records for 81 individuals and 5 institutions. Responsibility for maintaining and managing the PHS ALERT system rests with OSI. OSI searches the PHS ALERT system on a regular basis to compare the records it contains with the list of PHS grant recipients. The name of an investigator on file in the PHS ALERT system may be submitted to the funding directors of an institute, who may use the information in making decisions about, for example, advisory committee appointments and grant extensions.
Conflicting Views About Use of the PHS ALERT System. The identification and possible mistreatment of individuals who are subjects of ongoing but unresolved investigations have been criticized by many scientists. The notification provided by the PHS ALERT system can jeopardize the award of PHS research funds and government advisory appointments. Reputations can be damaged by use of the PHS ALERT system prior to a determination of misconduct, and some misconduct investigations can take several years to complete. But government officials note that access to the PHS ALERT system is restricted and contend that agency directors should have the opportunity to be informed that a misconduct investigation is in process