NIH Conflict Rule Is Eased for Interim Researchers

Times Staff Writer

Citing a desire to avoid an "undue burden on employees," the National Institutes of Health is exempting its temporary researchers from a pending requirement to divest stock holdings in biomedical companies.

The agency this week also told permanent staff researchers that they had an additional six months -- until early October -- to dispose of such holdings.

The adjustments to the NIH's new and more restrictive conflict-of-interest policy were announced in an internal memo by Dr. Raynard S. Kington, a deputy director of the agency. Kington and other agency officials have said that no changes are planned regarding the policy's other major provision, which bans all NIH researchers from accepting consulting fees or other compensation from the companies.

"The goal is to apply the rules necessary to help prevent conflicts of interests and preserve the public's trust in NIH's programs and information, while avoiding unintended consequences of undue burden on employees," said Kington's memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni announced the more restrictive rules last month, saying they were needed to prevent conflicts of interest and to ensure public confidence in the agency's research and recommendations. From 1999 to 2003, more than 530 NIH employees, including some who oversaw or conducted clinical trials, accepted fees, stock or stock options from pharmaceutical, biotechnology and related companies.

In an interview, Kington said that the temporary employees who would be exempted from the new stock-divestiture requirement were about 1,300 research fellows, including medical doctors and holders of doctorates, whose stints at the NIH span as much as four years. Kington said the research fellows would still be required to disclose details of their financial activities to NIH officials on a yearly basis, and that "case-by-case analyses" would be made to avert conflicts.

All of the permanent staff researchers must divest stock holdings in particular biomedical companies by Oct. 3. Other NIH employees must divest by the same date holdings that exceed $15,000 in value for any particular company. Investments in mutual or index funds will continue to be allowed at any value.

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