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Conflicting Interests

Congress responds to review panel report on conflict of interest at NIH

by Susan R. Morrissey
May 17, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 20

National institutes of Health policies on conflict of interest for its employees should be tightened; more disclosure is needed; and activities such as teaching, speaking, and writing should be less restricted, according to a report released on May 6 by an independent review panel.

Director Elias A. Zerhouni set up the 10-member NIH Blue-Ribbon Panel on Conflict-of-Interest Policies in February. Panel members were charged with examining and suggesting changes to current policy (C&EN, Feb. 9, page 22). Completed in just 66 days, the report contains 18 recommendations to improve the current system that governs the outside professional activities of NIH employees.

The recommendations include barring all senior NIH officials from engaging in paid consulting with industry or academia. For lower level NIH scientists who are not involved in management, policy, or financial decisions, the amount of time and compensation for consulting work will be limited. In addition, NIH employees will no longer be allowed to accept stock or stock options for consulting work.

The panel did recommend allowing NIH employees to accept bona fide cash awards for meritorious public service or achievement. The panel supports broadening the rules that govern public disclosure of consulting relationships such that more people must report such activity, and the panel would like to see fewer restrictions on NIH intramural scientists so that these scientists may more readily accept teaching, speaking, and writing engagements.

The House Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, which has held a close watch over this issue in recent months, responded quickly to the panel's report. At a hearing on May 12, subcommittee members questioned Zerhouni and panel cochairs Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Norman R. Augustine, retired chairman of Lockheed Martin. The House members noted that the report is a good first step, but asked whether the panel's recommendations are strong enough.

"The blue-ribbon panel report seems to handle the conflict-of-interest issues gently and seems almost blithely to accept the retention and recruitment arguments for maintaining some form of outside consulting and compensated scientific activities by NIH scientists," subcommittee Chairman James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.) said. He called for supporting data, asking: "Are there facts or information that back up these arguments about NIH's ability to retain or recruit?"

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, which oversees the subcommittee, noted that the hearing was not a witch-hunt. Every member of Congress wants to see NIH succeed, he added, but sufficient checks and balances must be in place. "We have to have transparency, and we have to have accountability," he said.

The panel's complete report is available at



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