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NIH Clears Most Researchers In Conflict-of-Interest Probe

But a detailed NIH review of the 100 or so scientists identified by the congressional inquiry has found that "more than half," and perhaps up to 80 percent, were mistakenly implicated, said Suzanne Servis, director of the NIH Office of Management Assessment, who has been overseeing the internal review.

In some cases, discrepancies arose because NIH provided data on collaborations only through Dec. 31, 2003, while the drug companies included the names of people going into 2004 who, it turned out, had gained NIH permission.

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In other cases, people whom the drug companies named as having collaborations with them had the same names as scientists at NIH but were not NIH employees.

In other cases, scientists did not appear on the NIH list because the agency had coded those scientists' activities as something other than consultancies -- the only category requested by Congress.

Neal Young, chief of hematology at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, was one of those mistakenly implicated. It started with a surprise announcement last summer that he was under investigation, Young said. Over a period of weeks, he was asked to turn over more and more records, and only recently, after eight months of questions, did he receive a draft notification that he had been cleared.

At issue was a talk he gave at a company, which had been approved and properly reported in 2004.

The investigation, he said, was a "very intrusive, time-consuming and anxiety-provoking experience." And although he has come through relatively unharmed, he is concerned about the cumulative effect of such errors on the agency's image.

"This is really a wonderful place and one of the best deals the American public has ever gotten, and I hate to see it portrayed as badly as it's been portrayed, and I'd hate to see it destroyed."

A number of NIH employees are gearing up for a fight. Some have been consulting with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is considering the argument that the broad restrictions infringe on employees' rights to privacy and free speech.

Another group on the Bethesda campus, known as the Assembly of Scientists, is pursuing other legal strategies to keep the rules from affecting the vast majority of employees who have no power over NIH purse strings. Some noted that the rules affect not only well-paid scientists and administrators but also low-level secretaries and clerks who could stand to lose significant sums if forced to divest stock holdings.

Already, the new rules have begun to discourage medical residents and fellows who are being recruited to the agency's newly expanded clinical center -- the nation's largest medical research hospital, which taxpayers just financed to the tune of $1 billion and which opened in October.

Hundreds of the nation's foremost physician-researchers rotate through the center for two- or three-year stints to run studies and care for patients undergoing experimental therapies. But with the new rules insisting that even these temporary employees and their family members must sell their biomedical stock portfolios and forgo various professional privileges, some top candidates are now reconsidering options at other institutions where such restrictions do not apply, according to administrators tracking the recruitment process.

"There are a lot of things that can be done at NIH that can't be done anywhere else in the field of clinical research, but you can't run the clinical programs without the interns," said Elaine Jaffe, chief of hematopathology at the National Cancer Institute, who knows of at least two top candidates having second thoughts. "Having just spent a lot of money on a new hospital, I'd hardly think you'd want to shut it down."

Scientists with long histories at NIH are as frustrated as incoming interns. One scientist who, under the new rules, was informed he could not accept an unpaid adjunct professorship at Johns Hopkins University was told he might be unduly influenced in favor of the university because the appointment came with free campus parking -- even though the scientist, who has no say over grant decisions, said he was happy to refuse the parking pass.

"I think this is the end of the [on-campus] research program if people are not allowed to do these professional activities, which are all unreimbursed," said Alan Neil Schechter, chief of molecular biology and genetics at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Kington said he is aware that the rules could hurt recruiting and is hopeful that the agency could make exceptions for temporary or short-term employees.

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