Ethics rules may hurt NIH staffing

Survey reveals undercurrent of discontent, fueling questions about the future of NIH

Karen Pallarito
Oct 30, 2006
More than ninety percent of tenured and tenure-track scientists at the National Institutes of Health feel the ethics rules issued last year are too restrictive and will negatively impact the institution's ability to recruit the best staff, a new survey finds.In fact, nearly 40 percent of these scientists indicated they are actively looking for a job outside of the NIH or considering such a move because of the new restrictions. "I think what this says is, in fact, there are problems, and these rules are a source of the problem," said Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the department of clinical bioethics at the NIH's Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center and a member of the executive committee of the Assembly of Scientists, a group of NIH intramural researchers who have previously criticized the rules as being overly restrictive. The 2005 reforms prohibit all NIH employees from conducting any outside consulting with pharmaceutical, biotech or medical device companies. The rules also limit stock ownership in biotechs, drug firms and other "substantially affected organizations" to $15,000 per company for about 200 senior NIH employees and their families.The rules are designed to address concerns that surfaced after media reports and congressional investigations revealed that some NIH scientists and officials had received lucrative consulting contracts, fees and stock options from pharmaceutical and biotech companies.An exodus of talent from the NIH "would be unfortunate," allowed Leo Furcht, chair of the department of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota and president of the Federation of the American Societies for Experimental Biology. Still, Furcht said the rules are necessary to instill public confidence in the biomedical research enterprise."I can imagine the change has caused come concern on the part of NIH employees, but in the same light, I think that one has to ask how the public would feel if [Department of Defense] employees might be consulting with defense contractors," he reasoned.The NIH survey is part of a three-step process to assess employees' views on the impact of the new ethics rules. Future surveys will examine what role, if any, the ethics regulations played in the decision of individuals who recently left NIH and whether the rules might sway potential employees' decision to work for the NIH. In an e-mail to staff last Thursday, NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni suggested that the Institute is prepared to stay the course. "Although the survey does suggest concerns about the impact of the regulations on recruitment and retention, at this time we do not anticipate revisions in the regulations," he wrote. "We do, however, plan to proceed with the next two stages of the evaluation process." Zerhouni's message highlights the finding that 73 percent of the 8,000 NIH employees surveyed felt the new ethics rules would have a positive impact on the Institute's credibility with the public. The entire survey population included scientists and non-scientists. In addition, while more than half of all the respondents felt that the new rules would have a negative impact on recruitment and retention, more than three-quarters indicated that the changes would either have no impact or a positive impact on their career, the survey found.Emanuel doesn't dispute the need for ethics rules but said the existing reforms, including the absolute ban on consulting, go "way beyond" preventing conflicts of interest."My hope is that we can take these data as a wake-up call...and try to think creatively about getting rules that prevent conflict of interest but aren't overly broad and implement them in a more consistent and transparent manner," he said.Karen Pallarito mail@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:Evaluation of the Impact of the New NIH Ethics Rules on Recruitment and Retention T. Agres. "NIH sees fight on ethics rules," The Scientist, Feb. 25, 2005. Agres, "NIH's Conflicting Interests,"The Scientist, Dec. 20, 2004 from the NIH Director