ETHICS TURNAROUND (sort of) by NIH INSTITUTE DIRECTOR
What a difference a month makes. When I went on vacation in June the Director of NIMH, Thomas Insel, was stonewalling about his relationship with Charles Nemeroff. Insel wanted to put distance between himself and the poster boy for conflict of interest in academic medicine. The heat was on Insel because of revelations that he helped Nemeroff get a new position at Miami after his fall from grace at Emory. Insel also gave a green light for Nemeroff to reapply for NIMH grant funding, and he appointed Nemeroff to new research review committees. These actions were widely seen as efforts to help Nemeroff get back into circulation. It didn’t help that people called attention to past favors and lobbying by Nemeroff on behalf of Insel.
Things continued to unravel, and on about June 29 Insel placed a disclaimer on his official blog. Insel here allowed that his earlier official statements “may be viewed as misleading.” This softening of Insel’s position was picked up June 29 by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Not only was Insel’s disclaimer on his official weblog undated, it is mealy mouthed and it was widely criticized – here and here, for instance – as further evidence of Insel’s disingenuousness.
By July 7 we learned of further revisions to Insel’s position. In response to pressure from Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Insel issued a mea culpa in which he agreed that Nemeroff’s actions constituted “an egregious violation of NIH policy and University rules.” Insel also acknowledged that his willingness to help Nemeroff “may have created the appearance of favoritism. In retrospect, I regret that my actions… appear inappropriate for a Federal research official given my past association with Dr. Nemeroff.” This new statement also was raked over as further evidence of Insel’s dissembling – see here and here and here.
Nowhere in Insel’s new self serving statements is there any apology for his ill advised appointment of Nemeroff to new Federal research review panels. This signals once again that Insel just doesn’t get it when it comes to his crony Nemeroff. It is not in the job description of an NIH Institute Director to taint research review panels with compromised and sanctioned scientists.
Keep in mind that the appearance of malfeasance and impropriety most often occurs in the presence of malfeasance and impropriety. That is a standard Bayesian proposition that Insel seems not to grasp.
In light of these developments, who can take seriously the work Dr. Insel says he has done to develop a new NIH initiative on ethics? The leadership of NIH tacitly acknowledged this problem when they recently extended the period of comment on the new ethics proposals. This was done specifically to mend the regulatory hole that Insel and his crony Nemeroff walked through when Insel assured Pascal Goldschmidt at Miami that Nemeroff could go right ahead to apply for new NIMH funding. Left to his own initiative, Insel kept the hole wide open. His July 7 statement to Senator Grassley that "I do not condone the gap in our policy that allowed (Nemeroff) to avoid the penalty implemented by Emory by moving to another university…” rings hollow: actions speak louder than words, and Insel had many months in which he could have closed the gap before the present scandal surfaced.
How much longer can NIH tolerate an ethical prevaricator as an Institute Director?
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