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The Price of NIH Credibility

Elias A. Zerhouni, the director of the National Institutes of Health, is being battered by his own scientists and by Congress to ease the strict conflict-of-interest rules he imposed last month.

Zerhouni should stand them off. Before he laid down the law, staff scientists were accepting lucrative consulting fees and other deals with the very biomedical industries whose products they were supposed to be independently reviewing.

Protesting NIH staff scientists and members of Congress opposing the new regulations would have us think Zerhouni intends to bulldoze the agency’s 300-acre campus in Bethesda, Md., and turn it into a garment-district sweatshop. In fact, the new rules don’t bar researchers from meeting with corporate scientists. Researchers also may accept up to $150,000 annually in royalties if companies license their discoveries and develop a product, though there are tough reporting requirements on the income.

Zerhouni’s critics claim that the new rules will lead to a cataclysmic brain drain. Yes, a few people might leave. But the rules also should bolster the agency’s status as one of the few places where scientists can work with true autonomy, free from the increasingly brazen control that biomedical industries are exerting over research.

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A Government Accountability Office study released two months ago found that the previous NIH policies “could call into question the quality and independence of federally funded research.” There could hardly be a better reason for change.

A few of Zerhouni’s rules, such as his prohibition on accepting prizes or awards of more than $200, may need slight softening. In other areas, they don’t go far enough.

The rules don’t apply to the non-staff scientists who receive the lion’s share of the agency’s money at universities across the country. Last month, after a Times editorial pointed that out, Zerhouni acknowledged the problem. We urge him again to act.

When university researchers apply for NIH grants, they should have to disclose any financial interests in the research they are proposing to conduct.

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The applications are open to Freedom of Information requests, giving the public a chance to know of possible conflicts of interests in the use of federal grant money.

At Senate hearings last week, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) sided with the complaining scientists and dangled a possible NIH budget increase in an implicit tit-for-tat for softer rules. That’s just strong-arming.

Zerhouni is trying to restore scientific credibility to an agency that had allowed one of its top scientists, P. Trey Sunderland III, to pocket half a million dollars from Pfizer Inc. even as he was evaluating Pfizer drugs for the NIH.

Would Harkin want to buy a drug for his family that was developed in this manner?


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