In the Loop

At the NIH, conflicting stories of conflict of interest

Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, has said an appearance of a conflict of interest could hurt trust in researchers.
Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, has said an appearance of a conflict of interest could hurt trust in researchers. (Jay Mallin/bloomberg News)

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Al Kamen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

It's been just three weeks since the National Institutes of Health announced new guidelines to deal with long-standing concerns that federally funded researchers were being influenced by millions of dollars from the drug industry and other companies, which would naturally love to see the researchers' efforts reach the right conclusions.

The NIH's tougher disclosure requirements came in response to a spate of bad press showing huge private-sector bucks flowing to researchers at universities and institutes and the like, creating, as NIH Director Francis S. Collins said, an appearance of a conflict of interest that could undermine public trust.

"We cannot afford to take any chances with the integrity of the research process," Collins said.

Then came a June 6 Chronicle of Higher Education article alleging that Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health and a leader in the effort to strengthen ethics rules, had helped Charles B. Nemeroff, a researcher who left Emory University last year after Senate investigators concluded that he had failed to disclose at least $1.2 million of some $2.8 million he had received over seven years from pharmaceutical companies.

Emory said it would not allow Nemeroff to apply for NIH grants for two years. But that restriction did not carry over to a future employer, such as the University of Miami -- where Nemeroff got a job, the Chronicle said, with a helpful recommendation from Insel. Nemeroff, in an e-mail obtained by the Chronicle, thanked Insel, saying "I appreciate your efforts."

The Chronicle article prompted Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been all over the battle to clean up federally funded research, to ask Health and Human Services inspector general Daniel R. Levinson, who has had Nemeroff "under investigation" by his office, to look into the matter.

Insel, however, called the article a "little surreal." He didn't have "any great relationship" with Nemeroff, he said in a telephone interview, and what Nemeroff "had done was so outrageous, he became the poster boy for conflict of interest."

"I didn't recommend him" for the Florida job, Insel said, but only clarified to an official there that Nemeroff was not barred from applying for future NIH grants.

The problem, he said, was that after Nemeroff was "penalized" at one institution, he "jumps to another. I can see why Sen. Grassley is upset," he added. "I would be upset at that, [but] we can do nothing about the individual -- the grants are given to the institution."

Sounds like the new guidelines may be in for some revisions once Grassley's through.

With the fix, Clinton's in

The constitutional dodge popularly known as the "Saxbe fix" is alive and well -- and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can keep her job -- after the Supreme Court on Monday tossed out a challenge to her continuing in office.


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