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NIH Bans Outside Consulting

Health agency proposes policy to manage conflict-of-interest concerns

by Susan R. Morrissey
October 4, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 40

The Louis Stokes Laboratories pictured here are home to a number of NIH intramural scientists working at the agency's Bethesda, Md., campus.
The Louis Stokes Laboratories pictured here are home to a number of NIH intramural scientists working at the agency's Bethesda, Md., campus.

The reaction to the National Institutes of Health's decision to ban outside consulting activities for all of its employees for one year has been guarded. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology company executives are reserving judgment until the ban goes into effect--a timeline that is unknown at present. Intramural scientists and agency spokesmen have declined to comment on the record or for attribution about the proposed ban.

The announcement of the proposed ban came on Sept. 24. It places a yearlong moratorium, pending approval by the Office of Government Ethics, on all outside consulting activities between NIH employees and pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. The ban is a response to an ongoing investigation by Congress of conflict-of-interest problems at the agency (C&EN, Dec. 15, 2003, page 10).

An NIH spokesman tells C&EN that intramural scientists see consulting as part of their scientific work, not as a means to supplement income. The policy, he says, is "hurting scientific morale." Another agency spokesman says one employee expressed his concern that this ban "would not just keep the best and brightest from being recruited, but cause a minor exodus of people who, rather than pursue working in this atmosphere, would just go to where it wouldn't apply; that is, either the pharmaceutical industry or academia."

"There are thousands of very hardworking scientists who can benefit from consulting and who have a lot to share," says Paul W. Kincade, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "But, on the other hand, we have to trust that the leadership of NIH had very compelling reasons to [effect a ban.]"


Members of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries share NIH's concerns. "There cannot be any appearance of conflict of interest," a spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization says. However, currently, he says, there are not enough details available to make a definitive statement about the new policy. Likewise, the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America did not release a statement, but through a spokesman says, "It's a final policy, and our companies will comply."


At a congressional hearing in June, NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni presented a set of proposed changes to the agency's conflict-of-interest polices, but he resisted calls to impose a complete ban on outside consulting activities (C&EN, June 28, page 30). It was also at that hearing that agency officials were embarrassed when presented with a large number of consulting agreements between NIH employees and pharmaceutical companies that agency officials hadn't known about.

As the agency proceeds with its review of the situation, NIH Deputy Director Raynard S. Kington wrote in a Sept. 24 memo to employees that "we have identified vulnerabilities in our system that give us pause. It is clear to us that if these activities are to continue, we will need a substantially expanded system of oversight to assure Congress and the public that conflicts of interest are prevented."

According to NIH records, there are currently 66 approved NIH-industry consulting arrangements that will be terminated. The exact number of arrangements, however, is unknown.


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