NIH Official Reverses Decision To Leave Agency Over New Conflict-of-Interest Rules
James Battey, director of the NIH's National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, on Thursday announced that he will retain his position following discussions with agency officials about new conflict-of-interest rules, the Washington Post reports (Weiss, Washington Post, 5/20).
Under the rules, announced by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni in February, employees would be barred from entering outside consulting agreements with pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, health insurers and health care providers. The guidelines also mandated that about 6,000 top NIH employees would not be permitted to hold stock in pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies, and current stockholders in the group would be required to sell their shares.
In April, Battey, who recently resigned as chair of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force, announced his departure from NIH because of concerns over the new rules. In addition, David Schwartz, a Duke University physician, had said he would delay his decision to accept a position as director of NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences because of the rules.
The announcements prompted Zerhouni in April to consider altering the new rules because he said the provision requiring employees to divest health-related stock could hinder recruitment and retention efforts at NIH. Schwartz on Tuesday announced that he had decided to accept his nomination to the post at NIH following conversations with Zerhouni on the agency's re-evaluation of those guidelines (California Healthline, 5/18).
On Thursday, Battey announced that he had withdrawn his application to lead the newly formed California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and will continue as director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. In addition, NIH spokesperson John Burklow said Battey will resume his position as chair of the Stem Cell Task Force (Willman, Los Angeles Times, 5/20).
In making the announcement, Battey said he had received assurances from NIH officials about the new rules (Washington Post, 5/20). According to the Times, at the time he announced his departure, Battey expressed concern about the impact the rules would have on a family trust that he manages, which includes stock holdings in biomedical companies. Battey said the trust was the only source of income for his parents and will pay the education costs for seven family members, and he expressed concern that the new restrictions would harm his family.
However, Battey on Thursday said he had discussed the problem with Zerhouni and they "came to an agreement that the best (outcome) ... at the end of the day would be to stay." Battey said, "I have the assurance of the NIH director that I will be able to fulfill my responsibility to my family and remain at NIH."
Battey noted that he has not received specifics on how the new rules will affect his role as manager of the family trust. Zerhouni said in an e-mail to NIH staff last week that "changes" to the new rules "will be made ... within the next few weeks," although he did not provide specifics (Los Angeles Times, 5/20).
Neither NIH nor HHS on Thursday would say what revisions to the rules had led to Schwartz and Battey reversing their decisions. However, Burklow said in a statement, "As stated before, HHS has committed to adjusting regulations based on comments, and we remain confident that the adjusted rules will be fair and reasonable while assuring the public that NIH remains a source of unbiased scientific information" (Washington Post, 5/20).