Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may consult with pharmaceutical and biotech companies as long as they spend fewer than 500 hours a year in these outside activities, publicly disclose all payments, and do not receive stock or stock options, according to recommendations being readied by NIH's "blue ribbon" panel on conflict of interest policies, a draft copy of which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times last week.

NIH officials would give "special scrutiny" if outside compensation exceeded half the employee's annual salary. To prevent even the appearance of conflicts, top NIH officials would be barred from engaging in any paid outside consulting whatsoever.

The newspaper reported in December 2003 that several high-level NIH scientists and officials had received more than $2.5 million in consulting fees and stock options from drug companies over the past 10 years. NIH director Elias Zerhouni has since suspended approval of...

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