Happy Times at NIMH – PART III
The unraveling of Thomas Insel, MD, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health continues. His ties with the poster boy for conflict of interest in psychiatry, Charles Nemeroff, MD, are getting new exposure. The story is notable not only for what it says about Insel and Nemeroff, but also for what it says about the ethical culture within NIMH.
The latest exposé is from Paul Basken in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education. Mr. Basken laid out the appearance of hypocrisy within NIH, with Insel leading an NIH initiative for strengthening ethics rules for medical researchers while he was “quietly help(ing) one of the most prominent transgressors get hired by the University of Miami after a decade of undisclosed corporate payments…” That, of course, would be Nemeroff.
Nemeroff’s new boss at the University of Miami was reassured by Insel last July “that Charlie was absolutely in fine standing" with the NIH. Pascal Goldschmidt, MD, the dean at U Miami, told Mr. Basken “…he was pleased to hear from Dr. Insel that Dr. Nemeroff not only could begin applying for NIH grants as soon as he arrived in Coral Gables, but that he could also continue to serve on the NIH's expert panels that help decide on which grant applications win federal financing.”
Let’s think about what is going on here. If Insel wanted to do favors for Nemeroff, because he owes Nemeroff big time, his rationalization was that Nemeroff has not (yet) been adjudicated a felon. Nemeroff’s case was referred to the Inspector General of HHS by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and we don’t know what the outcome will be. So Insel encourages Nemeroff to apply for NIH grants and he allows Nemeroff to begin new service on NIH review committees. As one of Insel’s lieutenants put it, “The NIH must "treat everyone equally unless they have been 'debarred' from funding… " Thus do federal bureaucrats cover their asses by invoking procedural technicalities in order to help their cronies. For NIMH under Insel’s leadership to extend these privileges to a compromised individual like Nemeroff makes as much sense as would allowing the unindicted Michael Corleone to serve on the jury in the trial of Hyman Roth, upon the recommendation of Senator Pat Geary (consult the plot of The Godfather, Part II). Paul Basken’s exposé contains much additional information about cozy, private E-mail traffic between Insel and Nemeroff. As I have commented before, maybe it is time for Insel to recalibrate his ethical compass.
All of this new information validates concerns that I raised over recent months here and here. I said then that Dr. Insel appeared disingenuous in trying to put distance between himself and Dr. Nemeroff. These new revelations by Paul Basken confirm the cronyism in their relationship. In his recent published commentary, Insel downplayed the gravity of the ethical issues surrounding Dr. Nemeroff and some other academic psychiatrists. Basically, he allowed for them to cop a plea on the issue of disclosing payments from corporations, and he tried to point fingers at other medical specialties, while he glossed over the evidence of their wider corruption. With some sadness, one needs now to say that the Director of NIMH cannot or will not recognize the corruption of his cronies. Is that the style of ethical leadership we should expect from an NIH Institute Director?
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