Public Trust at NIMH?
The NIMH Director, Thomas Insel, MD, is under siege for his problematic relationship with Charles Nemeroff. In his own defense, Insel placed a remarkable new post today on his official blog. It signals that Insel and NIMH just don’t understand the current controversy. Since the story appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education 2 days ago, it has reverberated on Health Care Renewal, on Pharmalot, on University Diaries, on the Nature blog, on the Science blog, and on Drug Monkey, to name just a few. The authors on these sites have been uniformly critical of Insel and of NIMH, as have almost all the comments.
What does Dr. Insel say in his defense today? Mainly, he demonstrates that he doesn’t get it. The very way in which he frames the issue tells us that. First he says it is about financial conflicts of interest. It isn’t. It is about the corruption of academic psychiatry. Financial conflicts of interest are just a part of that problem. Second, he says it is about whether the bad boys and girls in psychiatry were badder than those in other medical specialties. It isn’t. It never was. Third, he says he is surprised by criticism that he and NIMH have not taken firm action against the bad boys and girls, then he spends the rest of his column evading that issue. This degree of sophisticated indirection is achieved only in the highest echelons of bureaucracies.
Instead of a frank discussion of the real issues, we get a self serving description of the ways in which NIMH has taken steps to preserve the integrity of the research that it funds (starting after the scandal about the bad boys and girls broke within the Senate Finance Committee in 2008 – a detail not included by Dr. Insel. Where were they before?). By the time one makes it through this glossed-up history and the new promissory notes, it is easy to lose sight of what provoked the controversy this week.
It’s about the appearance of hypocrisy, with Insel assisting the compromised Nemeroff to land a new job at Miami while he is co-chairing a NIH effort to revise ethics guidelines.
It’s about consistency of discipline. After Emory University went through the wringer to discipline Nemeroff, at long last, and to ban him from involvement with NIH grants for 2 years, doesn’t NIH have a responsibility to make the discipline stick? After all, NIH deferred to Emory in the investigation of Nemeroff to begin with. What message does it send for Insel, a well known crony of Nemeroff, to blithely assure Pascal Goldschmidt at Miami that Nemeroff is “absolutely in fine standing” with NIH and that he “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?” As Drug Monkey said, “It’s about optics, NIH. This doesn’t look good.” It looks instead like cronies exploiting the gaps and inconsistencies in administrative oversight between academic centers and NIH.
It’s also about common sense and administrative propriety. Let us perhaps grant that Insel could not prevent or discriminate against Nemeroff in applying for new NIMH funding. There is weasel wording to cover Insel if he chose to take such a position. But does that mean Insel has no discretion over whether Nemeroff is invited onto two new NIMH review panels? Nemeroff has no entitlement to claim a place on these peer review panels. Whatever possessed Insel to extend this privilege to a compromised individual like Nemeroff? The answer plainly is that Insel doesn’t recognize the compromise and corruption of his crony Nemeroff. The appearance is that Insel is setting out to help Nemeroff get back into circulation after his fall from grace at Emory.
By his own blog posting today Insel tells us that he lacks the grasp of nuanced issues that his position requires. He doesn’t get the big picture in this controversy or, if he does, he wants to evade it. Either way, NIMH deserves better.
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