NIH scientists to meet with director over ethics rules

Restrictions on stock, outside work criticized

February 24, 2005|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Scientists at the National Institutes of Health, rebelling against stringent new rules restricting their outside activities and finances, plan to meet today with agency director Elias A. Zerhouni to propose an alternative set of ethics regulations.

The meeting was requested by Zerhouni, who announced the sweeping new conflict-of-interest policies this month, and comes as NIH employees are growing increasingly disturbed by the rules and concerned that the restrictions will damage the nation's premier research facility.

Their criticism of the regulations as a gross overreaction gained new currency this week after an internal NIH review that found many, if not most, of the conflict-of-interest charges revolving around agency scientists were unfounded.

Members of the Assembly of Scientists, an elected group of 15 scientists representing researchers throughout the Bethesda campus, say they intend to propose an alternative to the blanket ban on outside consulting activities and speaking, as well as restrictions on stock ownership, that apply to all NIH employees under the new rules.

"We all believe there have to be strong, firm regulations on outside activities, and quick and appropriate action for people who violate the rules," says Edward D. Korn, chief of cell biology at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and a 52-year NIH veteran. "But we believe the proposed rules are very excessive and heavy-handed."

The scientists' alternative proposal largely mirrors the recommendation of a panel Zerhouni appointed last year to evaluate the agency's conflict-of-interest policy.

The alternate proposal would retain the new across-the-board restrictions on outside activities and stock ownership for institute directors, clinical directors and other top officials who have broad responsibilities. But it would allow the vast majority of the NIH's more than 5,000 scientists to continue consulting or speaking for outside companies and academic institutions and to own biomedical stock as long as those arrangements have no connection to their specific area of work.

The scientists' proposal would also eliminate new restrictions on stock ownership by nonscientific staff, such as secretaries, carpenters and glassware washers, as well as spouses and children of employees.

Cynthia Dunbar - senior investigator at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and an assembly member - says she's been getting hundreds of e-mail messages a day from agency scientists worried about the restrictions and their potential to hurt the NIH's ability to recruit and retain talented researchers.

"The salary differential is already an issue," she said, noting that sought-after scientists can make more money at other research facilities or in private industry. "Now, add to that the new restrictions, and the good surgeons, radiologists and clinicians are going to say `sorry' and go down the street to work at Hopkins."

The new rules, which bar scientists from consulting work at biomedical companies as well as research institutions that receive NIH grants, were drawn up largely by administrators from the Office of Government Ethics and the Department of Heath and Human Services. Zerhouni announced the rules Feb. 3 after months of mounting pressure from Congress to address multiple incidents of conflict of interest among agency scientists who had been collecting outside income as consultants to biotechnology or drug companies.

In some cases, the scientists were receiving large fees from drug companies that stood to benefit from their recommendations to doctors.

Policy evaluation

In January 2004, Zerhouni appointed a 10-member committee to evaluate the NIH's conflict-of-interest policies. The panel recommended banning agency directors and certain other top officials from taking industry payments but allowed most NIH scientists to continue their consulting work and speaking as long as it was approved by their supervisors and not in conflict with their work.

At the time, Zerhouni strongly defended collaborations between scientists and industry as a way to translate research more quickly from the laboratory into usable treatments and therapies.

But members of Congress and the Office of Government Ethics criticized the recommendations as inadequate. And lawmakers, on their own, contacted 20 drug and biotechnology companies about their consulting agreements with NIH employees. They found evidence of arrangements with about 100 scientists whose activities, it appeared, had not been reported to their NIH supervisors as required by policy.

Feeling "shot in the back" at the discovery, as Zerhouni recently told a meeting of NIH employees, the director moved to impose what he called "drastic" across-the-board restrictions on all employees as a way to regain public trust in the $28 billion medical research agency.

Wrongly accused

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