NIH Official To Accept Position After Agency Director Elias Zerhouni Promises To Revise Ethics Rules
David Schwartz, a Duke University physician who delayed his decision to accept a position at NIH because of new conflict-of-interest rules, announced Tuesday that he will begin working at the agency on Monday, the Los Angeles Times reports. Schwartz said that recent conversations with NIH Director Elias Zerhouni on the agency's re-evaluation of guidelines on divestiture of health-related stock persuaded him to accept the offer (Willman, Los Angeles Times, 5/18).
Schwartz was nominated to become the new director of NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in October 2004. However, he postponed assuming his role because of concerns about the conflict-of-interest guidelines, announced by Zerhouni in February.
Under the rules, NIH said 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 cannot hold stock in pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies and require current stockholders in the group to sell their shares.
However, Zerhouni in April announced plans to consider altering the new rules because the provision requiring employees to divest health-related stock could hinder recruitment and retention efforts at NIH. Zerhouni noted that the rules had caused several employees -- including James Battey, chair of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force and director of the NIH National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders -- to announce their departures and Schwartz to delay his acceptance (California Healthline, 4/7).
"My concerns about the conflict-of-interest rules have been heard and are being seriously considered and addressed," Schwartz said (Eggen/Weiss, Washington Post, 5/18). He added, "I'm confident that Dr. Zerhouni will develop a reasonable policy" regarding stock investments.
Schwartz also said, "I strongly believe that investments do not necessarily equate to conflicts of interest. However, there are some investments that clearly do represent conflicts. Those investments need to be avoided or the conflicts need to be managed in a way that allows for full disclosure, review and appropriate supervision."
Schwartz said he will limit his holdings in publicly traded biomedical companies to no more than $15,000 in stock and will place the holdings under the control of an outside investment manager. He also said that he supports NIH's ban on consulting fees from all pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms.
In a statement Tuesday, Zerhouni said, "I am pleased that we have been able to conclude his recruitment and address his concerns regarding the interim rules on stock divestitures. When I speak of NIH's need to attract the best and the brightest scientists, David is a prime example. ... He is one of the world's outstanding researchers in environmental health."
According to the Times, in his new role, Schwartz will preside over a department with a budget of $711 million devoted to conducting experiments aimed at determining how environment, genetics and aging can cause or affect diseases. Schwartz will bring 23 colleagues with him to NIH from Duke (Los Angeles Times, 5/18).