Saturday, April 02, 2005

More Unrest Over the New NIH Ethics Rules

The Washington Post reports yet more unrest among top NIH employees about the new ethics rules.
  • Another prominenet leader is stepping down because he can't comply with the new rules. James F. Battey, the Director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communicative Disorders, said "I manage a family trust ... which supports the education of my father's seven grandchildren, and it contains assets I'm told I'd have to divest. This would cost a lot of money, and I can't do that to my family."
  • A dissenting group of "senior agency scientists," complained that they would have to get permission for practically any outside activity, "whether paid or not, from singing in a jazz group to selling art or jewelry, from volunteering at charity organizations to membership in a school or community organization...." from the NIH. "It is intrusive and scary. It suggests the NIH owns our lives away from work."
  • Ashani Weerarartna of the National Institute on Aging was told she could not accept a $200 train ticket from a "physicians' education group" to present a paper. "I felt awful. I had to call and tell them to find someone else."
  • Furthermore, NIH workers complained that they "cannot hold executive postions - even on a volunteer basis - with trade or professional organizations..." Regarding this, Robert L. Nussbaum, Chief, Genetic Disease Research Branch,National Human Genome Research Institute, said "But what I'm really worried about is backlash from the organizations.""We will be cut off, disenfranchised from our academic colleagues."
An interesting theme here, in my humble opinion, is how those who complain about the new regulations seem to exaggerate their impact.
  • Let's start with Dr. Battey, who also does seem to represent a very special case. I would imagine he could continue to manage his family trust himself if he were willing to sell individual stocks of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Why that would be so expensive is unclear, unless he chose some very bad investments. Furthermore, he could re-invest the money in say, mutual funds that specialize in pharma or biotech. On the other hand, he could simply hire a professional money manager.
  • The dissenting NIH employees seem to have exaggerated the effect of the regulations, as summarized here, on outside activities unrelated to their work at the agency.
  • If the meeting were so important, why couldn't Weerarartna ask the NIH to pay her way, or pay her own way? On the other hand, was the "physicians' education group" actually a commercial CME source, or was it funded by pharma or biotech money?
  • Why couldn't Dr Nussbaum participate in some way other than an "executive" role in the organization? If those "executive positions" were the only members not to feel "cut off, disenfranchised" from this organization, why would anyone want to be a member of it?
Again, let me reiterate, NIH leaders have the privilege of working for what many consider to be the world's premier biomedical research institution. In holding such positions, their speech and actions ought to reflect their scientific knowledge and their commitment to the public good. Major personal financial involvements with outside entities, especially for-profit manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and devices, raise questions about whose interests they are really serving. As Director Zerhouni has said, "It is undermining in a profound way — more profound than I personally realized at the beginning of the process — the integrity of our research and our ability to maintain public trust in our research.”
If NIH salaries are too low to attract competent scientists and physicians, they should be raised. But an NIH position should not be license to seek lucrative after-hours employment for industry.

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