NIH exempting some from new ethics rules

Temporary researchers don't have to divest stocks in biomedical companies

March 17, 2005|By David Willman | David Willman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Citing a desire to avoid "undue burden on employees," the National Institutes of Health is exempting its temporary researchers from a new requirement to divest stock holdings in biomedical companies.

In a related move, the agency this week also informed permanent staff researchers that they had an additional six months - until early October - to dispose of such holdings.

The adjustments to the NIH's new and more restrictive conflict-of-interest policy were announced in an internal memo by Dr. Raynard S. Kington, a deputy director of the agency. Kington and other agency officials have said that no changes are planned to the policy's other major provision - which bans NIH researchers from accepting consulting fees or any other form of compensation from the companies.

"The goal is to apply the rules necessary to help prevent conflicts of interests and preserve the public's trust in NIH's programs and information, while avoiding unintended consequences of undue burden on employees," said Kington's memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni announced the more restrictive rules last month, saying they were needed to prevent conflicts of interest among employees and to ensure public confidence in the agency's research and recommendations. From 1999 to 2003, more than 530 NIH employees, including some who oversaw or conducted clinical trials, accepted fees, stock or stock options from pharmaceutical, biotechnology and related companies.

The temporary employees to be exempted from the new stock-divestiture requirement are research fellows, including medical doctors and holders of doctorates, whose stints at the NIH span up to four years.

Zerhouni and Kington have come under attack from some NIH employees displeased with the new restrictions. The critics have focused much of their fire on the stock-divestiture requirements, which as written apply to all NIH employees, not just permanent researchers.

As adjusted this week, all of the permanent staff researchers must divest stock holdings in particular biomedical companies by Oct. 3. Other NIH employees must divest by the same date holdings that exceed $15,000 in value for any particular company. Investments in mutual or index funds will continue to be allowed at any value.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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