Ethics Rules Send NIH Scientists Packing

The Associated Press
Saturday, October 28, 2006; 8:30 PM

-- Nearly 40 percent of the scientists conducting hands-on research at the National Institutes of Health say they are looking for other jobs or are considering doing so to escape new ethics rules that have curtailed their opportunity to earn outside income.

Most scientists say the ethics crackdown is too severe, and nearly three-quarters of them believe it will hinder the government's ability to attract and keep medical researchers, according to a survey commissioned by the government's premier medical research agency.

The tightened rules were put in place last year after NIH found dozens of scientists had run afoul of existing restrictions on private consulting deals that had enriched them with money from drug and biotechnology companies.

Outside income from such companies is now banned. NIH also is placing greater restrictions and disclosure requirements on employees' financial holdings.

"Of course we are concerned when any employees are saying they might consider leaving as a result of a change of policy," said Dr. Raynard Kington, the agency's principal deputy director. But he said in a telephone interview Friday that the survey results are muddy because they combine both those actively seeking to leave and those thinking about it.

NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, in a letter Thursday to the staff, said the survey "does suggest concerns about the impact of the regulations on recruitment and retention." But he added, "At this time we do not anticipate revisions in the regulations."

About 8,000 NIH employees, or about half the work force, responded to the Internet-based survey.

Employee job satisfaction was high overall, the survey found. But 39 percent of the scientists researching disease and cures _ known as tenure and tenure-track scientists _ said they actively were seeking new work or considering leaving NIH because of the rules.

Overall, 3,336 NIH scientists responded to the survey, including 512 tenure and tenure-track researchers.

Among all NIH scientists, only 18 percent said they were trying to leave or considering it. Those who are not in the tenure group typically do not conduct research themselves and instead manage outside research conducted with NIH money by universities and other nonfederal entities. They are less likely to have private consulting opportunities.

One-third of all NIH scientists said they believed the new rules will hurt NIH's ability to fulfill its mission, and most said the old rules could have been enforced better rather than tightened.

NIH officials said they now want to question former and potential employees to see how the changes influenced their decisions.

Kington highlighted a finding that nearly nine in 10 scientists reported they still intend to work at NIH a year from now. Despite rumblings of low morale, he said the scientists' job satisfaction rate of 81 percent reflects one of the government's most positive work forces.

Officials also emphasized employees' belief that the new rules will boost the agency's credibility with the public. Seventy-three percent of the employees who responded agreed with that, the survey found.

"We have to monitor closely and we'll continue do that, and if we show through our evaluations objective evidence of an impact on our ability to recruit and retain the smartest staff, scientific and nonscientific, that we can, then we will be the first ones to make the case for modifying the rules, but we're not there yet," Kington said.

One NIH administrator who left over the ethics rules said the agency's changes were handled poorly.

"Dedicated public servants were harassed right out of NIH. That's a disservice to us all," said Edward Maibach, the former associate director of the biggest NIH component, the National Cancer Institute. He is now director of Public Health Communication at the George Washington University. Maibach said he left the NCI nearly two years ago because new financial disclosure requirements invaded his privacy.

The changes are "a dramatic backlash," to earlier policies encouraging outside work by NIH scientists to speed practical application of scientific advances, he said.

Arthur Caplan, medical ethics chairman at the University of Pennsylvania, said tighter rules were needed but "we still haven't figured out exactly how to manage conflict of interest."

"To have a large number of the senior scientists unhappy spells trouble. You don't want them to retire or leave," he said.

"The leaders of the NIH and in Congress have to think a bit harder about giving a tiny bit of breathing room so that NIH scientists are not sent into a monastery from which they can't ever come out in the name of scientific integrity."


On the Web:

NIH survey:

Memo on survey results:

© 2006 The Associated Press