Conflicting Interests at NIH

I'm glad to see The Scientist examine the issue of conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment for scientists at the National Institutes of Health.1A major question is whether the current salaries of high-level NIH scientists, generally ranging from $180,000 to $200,000, are too low. Obviously, it is possible to earn more elsewhere, but would the NIH be unable to attract top scientists if they don't allow their employees to supplement those salaries with outside income?Congress may be relu

May 10, 2004
Diana Zuckerman

I'm glad to see The Scientist examine the issue of conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment for scientists at the National Institutes of Health.1

A major question is whether the current salaries of high-level NIH scientists, generally ranging from $180,000 to $200,000, are too low. Obviously, it is possible to earn more elsewhere, but would the NIH be unable to attract top scientists if they don't allow their employees to supplement those salaries with outside income?

Congress may be reluctant to raise these salaries, since the current salary for most members of the US Congress is $158,100 per year and outside income is greatly restricted. The majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate each earn $175,600. The speaker of the House of Representatives and the vice president of the US each earn about $203,000. Most of these men and women could earn much more in other jobs, and yet many gave up more lucrative jobs and even use their own money to campaign for those positions. As is the case at NIH, there are advantages to these jobs that are unrelated to money.

As a former Congressional staffer, I know that, in contrast to public opinion, most of these members work well over 50 hours/week and are dedicated to public service. I often don't agree with their votes, but I respect their dedication.

I believe that most scientists are proud to have high-level positions at the NIH and would not leave if outside income were no longer allowed. However, if higher salaries are needed to attract the best scientists, the US government should increase top NIH salaries rather than allow supplemental income from private sources. Strong ties exist between many university researchers and the private sector; the NIH is one of the few places where taxpayers should be able to expect true independence. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest is too high a price to pay.

Diana Zuckerman, PhD

President National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families Washington, DC dz@center4policy.org