NIH Ethics Rules Affect Retention
Almost 40% of NIH tenure and tenure-track scientists have begun or have considered efforts to seek new employment because of new agency ethics rules "that have curtailed their opportunity to earn outside income," according to an internal survey, AP/USA Today reports. NIH implemented the rules last year after a review found that "dozens of scientists had run afoul of existing restrictions on private consulting deals that had enriched them with money from drug and biotechnology companies," AP/USA Today reports (Beamish, AP/USA Today, 10/28).
Under the rules, the top 200 NIH officials must maintain holdings at or less than $15,000 in individual pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. They also must limit their investments in health care sector funds at or less than $50,000.
Lower-level NIH employees must inform their supervisors about potential conflicts of interest in their investments but do not have to file disclosures. In addition, NIH employees cannot accept consulting fees from pharmaceutical, biotech or medical device companies; health care providers; health insurers; or research institutions sponsored by the agency (California Healthline, 8/26/05).
The online survey included responses from 8,000 NIH employees, 3,336 of whom were agency scientists. According to the survey, among the 512 NIH tenure or tenure-track scientists -- who conduct research on diseases and treatments -- 39% said that they have begun or have considered efforts to seek new employment because of the rules. Among all NIH scientists, many of whom in most cases manage outside research sponsored by the agency rather than conduct research, 18% said that they have begun or have considered efforts to seek new employment because of the rules, the survey found.
Most NIH scientists said that the rules are overly strict and that the agency could have improved enforcement of the old ethics rules rather than implement new rules, according to the survey. In addition, one-third of NIH scientists said that the rules will limit ability of the agency to function, and three-fourths said that the rules would limit the ability of the agency to attract and retain researchers, the survey found.
However, the survey found that 81% of NIH scientists reported satisfaction with their employment and that almost nine in 10 planned to remain at the agency for at least the next year. In addition, about 73% of all NIH employees said that the rules would improve the credibility of the agency with the public, the survey found.
Raynard Kington, principal deputy director at NIH, said, "Of course we are concerned when any employees are saying they might consider leaving as a result of a change of policy." Kington added, "We have to monitor closely and we'll continue to do that, and if we show through our evaluations objective evidence of an impact on our ability to recruit and retain the smartest staff, scientific and non-scientific, that we can, then we will be the first ones to make the case for modifying the rules, but we're not there yet."
NIH Director Elias Zerhouni in a letter said that the survey "does suggest concerns about the impact of the regulations on recruitment and retention." He added, "At this time we do not anticipate revisions in the regulations."
Arthur Caplan, medical ethics chair at the University of Pennsylvania, said, "The leaders of the NIH and in Congress have to think a bit harder about giving a tiny bit of breathing room so that NIH scientists are not sent into a monastery from which they can't ever come out in the name of scientific integrity" (AP/USA Today, 10/28).