Opposition Among NIH Scientists to New Agency Confict-of-Interest Guidelines Continues
New conflict-of-interest guidelines for NIH employees have continued to cause an "uproar" at the agency, "with some senior scientists predicting long-term damage to the organization's recruiting and employee-retention goals," the Wall Street Journal reports (Wysocki, Wall Street Journal, 3/3).
NIH Director Elias Zerhouni on Feb. 1 announced revised ethics guidelines that will restrict the ability of NIH employees to enter outside consulting agreements with pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, health insurers and health care providers. The revised guidelines also will mandate 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.
The move followed an investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations into hundreds of consulting payments from 20 pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to a number of NIH employees. An NIH review released last month concluded that statistical and clerical errors led the agency to improperly implicate more than half and possibly as many as 80% of about 100 scientists alleged to have violated conflict-of-interest guidelines as part of the House investigation.
The revised guidelines will become final in early April after a 60-day comment period.
The Assembly of Scientists, a group of 15 elected NIH researchers who represent employees throughout the agency, last month distributed a newsletter that said the revised ethics guidelines "substantially overreach and will severely and irreparably compromise the NIH's mission."
The newsletter continued, "These new regulations will discourage talented, innovative scientists from staying at or being recruited to the NIH and preclude scientists already at the NIH from participating as full members of the scientific community" (California Healthline, 2/24).
"It is uncertain" whether the opposition to the revised guidelines "will lead to large-scale departures" from NIH, but agency scientists "say they already are seeing the effect[s]," according to the Journal.
Elaine Jaffe, a section chief at the NIH National Cancer Institute, said that she has experienced problems with the hire of a post-doctoral cancer specialist for a two-year fellowship because of potential conflicts of interest under the revised guidelines.
Other NIH scientists maintain that the revised guidelines "reek of diminished status" and "give many scientists the feeling they aren't trusted," the Journal reports (Wall Street Journal, 3/3).
Meanwhile, according to the Los Angeles Times, the newsletter sent by the Assembly of Scientists left "unmentioned" that one-third of assembly members have "accepted consulting fees or stock options from biomedical companies." The payments totaled more than $400,000, and one member received 500,000 shares of stock from a company, the Times reports.
An undisclosed number of other NIH employees who have received payments or stock options from pharmaceutical and biotech companies currently remain under internal review for potential conflicts of interest, according to agency officials.
According to the Times, the newsletter "did not explicitly defend or condemn the acceptance of stock options for consulting fees from the drug industry." In interviews with the Times, assembly members with financial ties to pharmaceutical and biotech companies said that they oppose the ban on consulting agreements with such companies in the revised ethics guidelines and support "case-by-case assessments" (Willman, Los Angeles Times, 3/3).