NIH scientists challenge stock ownership, consulting rules

A group that represents senior scientists and others at the National Institutes of Health is proposing less restrictive regulations concerning the ownership of stock in drug and biotech companies, and the ability to consult with universities and academic institutions.

Mar 28, 2005
Ted Agres
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A group that represents senior scientists and others at the National Institutes of Health is proposing less restrictive regulations concerning the ownership of stock in drug and biotech companies, and the ability to consult with universities and academic institutions.

Director Elias A. Zerhouni announced tough new ethics regulations in February. The new rules will "substantially overreach and will severely and irreparably compromise the NIH's mission," according to the Assembly of Scientists, an organization representing senior NIH intramural researchers. "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," 18 members of the Assembly of Scientists argue in The NIH Catalyst, a newsletter circulated on the Bethesda, Md., campus.

The rules require most intramural scientists, all senior officials, and those having contracting and grant-making authority to divest of all stock in drug and biotech companies. Other NIH employees are limited to no more than $15,000 in stock in any one biotech or drug company. The rules bar all NIH employees from consulting with or accepting payments from pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device companies as well as from universities, hospitals, and research institutes that receive NIH funds. The regulations go into effect in April.

Most NIH scientists concerned about the issue "are totally in favor of rules to prevent conflicts of interest, but we don't want the rules to be so restrictive as to avoid academic interactions," says Abner L. Notkins, chief of experimental medicine at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Notkins is not a member of the Assembly of Scientists executive committee.

The NIH Fellows Committee, a group representing more than 3,000 fellows at the agency, recommended that trainees, fellows, and temporary researchers be exempted from the new regulations. This would allow them to receive money to attend conferences, workshops, and other professional development activities. They believe their proposal will be just as effective in eliminating conflicts of interest as would the new rules.

The backlash from intramural scientists comes as the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post report that NIH investigators have cleared 50% to 80% of some 100 suspected cases of improper consulting activities.

In a guest editorial in The NIH Catalyst, Zerhouni characterized the agency's year-long conflict-of-interest controversy as a "divisive issue," a "painful episode," and an "unfortunate chapter in our history."