NIH's conflicting interests

reported that several high-level scientists and officials at the National Institutes of Health had collectively received more than $2.5 million in consulting fees and stock options from drug and biotech companies, the NIH, Congress, and scientists are still at odds over the agency's conflict-of-interest rules.

By | December 20, 2004

A year after The Los Angeles Times reported that several high-level scientists and officials at the National Institutes of Health had collectively received more than $2.5 million in consulting fees and stock options from drug and biotech companies, the NIH, Congress, and scientists are still at odds over the agency's conflict-of-interest rules.

In the latest round, nearly 180 intramural scientists in November wrote NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni to protest a proposed one-year moratorium (see http://www.the-scientist.com/yr2004/nov/biobus2_041108.html) on all paid consulting activities, including honoraria and lecture fees for speaking at NIH-funded universities. Such a prohibition risked turning NIH scientists into "second-class citizens in the biomedical community," they wrote.

Later that month, Zerhouni and about 150 staff scientists had an "open and frank" discussion, according to Michael Gottesman, deputy director for intramural research. The scientists argued that barring honoraria was a dis-incentive for lecturing and teaching. "There was general agreement that giving these talks was a good thing and we needed to find ways to allow it to happen," Gottesman says. At press time, a follow-up meeting was planned for the second week of December.

While no evidence of wrongdoing has emerged from several congressional hearings and government investigations, the controversy has forced NIH to recommend changes to its ethics rules and procedures, changes that the Office of Government Ethics believe do not go far enough. When asked earlier this month to summarize the consulting controversy, Zerhouni deadpanned: "It's been an interesting issue, to say the least."

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