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Unhealthy Ethics

Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page A18

WE DON'T NORMALLY find ourselves in the position of arguing that ethics rules are too restrictive. Then again, we don't normally encounter ethics rules as overbroad, intrusive and unnecessarily punitive as those recently put in place by the National Institutes of Health. The NIH ethics rules needed to be tightened, especially in light of reports involving possible conflicts of interest by government researchers who also engaged in lucrative outside consulting work. But the new rules represent an ultimately self-defeating overreaction.

The latest illustration of this comes in an e-mail sent Monday afternoon to employees at one of NIH's component institutes, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. This guidance -- misguided, as it turns out -- tells all employees that they must submit forms in advance before engaging in any outside activities, paid or unpaid, "even if it seems obvious that they in no way impinge on your duties as a public servant." It offers such examples as coaching a children's soccer team, serving as a Girl Scout leader, tutoring Spanish, or moonlighting as a sales clerk or house painter. As the e-mail itself notes, "these reporting requirements seem extreme and wholly unnecessary."

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In fact, the e-mail got the new rules wrong, as red-faced NIH officials acknowledged yesterday. They cover only outside "employment," so Girl Scout troops won't be left leaderless. NIH officials have already asked the Department of Health and Human Services to carve out other broad exemptions for employment that has nothing to do with NIH activities. "We will not have people filling out a 16-page form to go coach basketball one night a month for $15," Deputy Director Raynard S. Kington told us yesterday. "It's just not going to happen. We aren't quite that dense."

To the extent that NIH is trying to take far-reaching rules and apply them in more sensible ways, it deserves credit. For example, the agency has already said that the broad new prohibition on holding more than a small amount of pharmaceutical or biotechnology stock -- even in companies entirely unrelated to an employee's field of research -- won't apply to NIH fellows, who come for just a few years of training and aren't in positions of authority that could produce conflicts of interest. But the fundamental problem with the NIH rules remains that they sweep in, rather senselessly, all 17,500 NIH employees, instead of being narrowly focused on the far smaller group of people whose positions could be most susceptible to ethical concerns.

On Monday, as the mistaken e-mail was being circulated, a group of NIH employees filed comments with the Department of Health and Human Services and filed a court notice that they would challenge the rules. Their criticisms ought to be taken seriously. For example, under the rule, at least one-third of the NIH workforce -- scientists at a senior-enough level that they have to file confidential financial disclosure forms, and those involved in dispensing grants -- would be prohibited, along with their families, from holding any stock whatsoever in pharmaceutical or biotechnology firms, even if such holdings had no connection, however remote, to their work.

These rules are already taking a toll on NIH staffing: James F. Battey, chief of NIH's human-stem-cell program and director of that agency's deafness institute, cited the rules in announcing his retirement, and a Duke University physician has postponed taking the helm of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The brass at NIH and HHS should heed the lesson: Ethics rules that make no sense can be almost as damaging to an institution as rules that are too lax.

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