Thursday, September 01, 2005

Final Conflict of Interest Rules at NIH, but Dissent Continues

Bad news keeps coming in from the Gulf Coast. Yet staring straight ahead and feeling bad about it in Rhode Island won't help anybody out.
Contributing some money to relief efforts will, so I sent some to our local Red Cross, ear-marked for Hurricane Katrina relief. A link to the American Red Cross is here, and other bloggers have posted long lists of worthwhile relief organizations. See, for example, Instapundit.
Doing something about threats to health care's core values may help somebody out, on the other hand, at least in the long run, so back to business....
We have blogged extensively about the conflict of interest problems at the NIH (see recent post here, with links to many earlier ones.) The good news is that the Director of the NIH, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, has made permanent more stringent new rules about conflicts of interest, including strict controls on outside employment (see NY Times story here). It may seem silly that NIH employees will have to seek approval for hobby businesses. However, previous stories of top NIH officials collecting five- and six-figure amounts in consulting fees and stock options from pharamaceutical and biotechnology companies, and allegations that they may have promoted these companies' interests while speaking in their official NIH role (see this post from last year) make these rules seem less silly.
More curious was the continuing unrest at the NIH about these rules, as documented in another NY Times story. The final rules are, in fact, less stringent than what Dr. Zerhouni originally proposed.
One complaint was about Zerhouni's clothes. He usually wears suits, while Dr. Harold Varmus, who made the decision to relax conflict of interest rules in the 1990's, favored "khakis and rumpled shirts." Said Dr. Emanuel Ezekiel, leader of some of the dissidents, and also Chair of the Department of Clinical Bioethics, of all things, "Dr. Zerhouni cuts a different figure than the rest of us."
Furthermore, the Times noted that "Dr. Varmus ... encouraged the notion that the health institutes were not so much a government agency as a kind of benevolent, well-financed university." I am a former academic. I often wear khakies. But if being like a university means, as Zerhouni put it in an earlier interview,
No limits on stock. No limits on money. No limits. Where were all those holier-than-thou intellects?"
It's a sad statement about what universities and the NIH had become. Dr. Zerhouni was further quoted,
We look like we're just crybabies. And the world out there is not sympathetic to government scientists who make more money than the vice president of the United States. Let's get real.
At the end of the day, you have to make a choice between being unpopular for one topic and doing the right thing by your agency. You do the right thing by your agency, and that's what I think I'm doing and I won't stop.


No comments: