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NIH Workers Angered by New Ethics Rules

"This is going to make it difficult to participate in an ownership society," quipped David Levens, an investigator at the National Cancer Institute, to a burst of applause -- a not-so-subtle reference to President Bush's recent exhortations to revamp Social Security in ways that would get Americans more involved in the stock market, not less.

But seemingly less significant rule changes also drew jeers. One rule, for example, will place the vast majority of scientific and public service awards off-limits to employees. Explaining what they could still legally accept, NIH Ethics Office Director Holli Beckerman Jaffe said employees "may accept the 'honor' associated with an award" -- but not the cash.

The new rules are stricter than those NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni proposed. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

The audience was hardly appeased when Jaffe added that they could also accept "plaques and trophies of little intrinsic value" and that Nobel Prizes will still be allowed.

Several attendees wanted to know why, if the goal is to restore public trust in the federal scientific enterprise, the rules are to be applied solely to NIH.

"Does this apply to the Department of Energy? To the Department of Agriculture? To the Defense Department?" asked Elaine Jaffe, a pathologist who is chief of blood diseases at the National Cancer Institute, to cheers and applause.

"If we really want to reassure the public," Emanuel added, "why don't we apply these to everyone who gets an NIH grant?"

Again applause.

Another attendee noted that NIH employees are subject to periodic outside evaluations and reviews by nongovernmental scientists who are not subject to the same ethics restrictions -- a bizarre situation, the employee said, in which people with real conflicts of interest will be sitting in judgment of those with none.

Moreover, the NIH calls upon hundreds of outside scientists from academia and industry to judge grant proposals every year -- people who have far more power over purse strings than most employees but who will not be covered by the new rules.

That speaker was among several who refused to identify themselves to reporters because of fears of punishment by superiors at the Department of Health and Human Services. One told a reporter that employees were being "muzzled." Another said "there have been retributions." Neither would elaborate.

Still others complained that the stock restrictions will apply not only to themselves but to their spouses, as well.

"How can the U.S. government in 2005" define spouses as dependents? asked Abner Notkins, chief of experimental medicine in the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. "Spouses are independent people." He added that his wife has already contacted the American Civil Liberties Union to discuss the issue.

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