In an unusual, collective dissent, more than 170 intramural scientists at the National Institutes of Health have signed a letter to NIH director Elias Zerhouni protesting a proposed ban that would prevent researchers from being paid to advise or speak at institutions with funding from NIH. The signers, many of them lab and section chiefs, told Zerhouni last week that a ban on so-called honoraria and other payments is an "error" that restricts academic freedom and risks turning NIH scientists into "second-class citizens."
The letter reflects growing frustration with an ongoing crackdown on consulting that began after a Los Angeles Times report detailing large industry payments to several NIH officials. That story sparked a congressional investigation. Zerhouni soon banned outside consulting by top officials and those overseeing grants. After Congress pressed for further reforms, Zerhouni announced in June that all NIH employees will be barred from paid consulting for grantee institutions--including speaking. NIH policy had allowed such lectures, for which institutions typically pay travel expenses and an honorarium of as little as $200 or $300.
NIH Deputy Director Raynard Kington explains that NIH now thinks intramural scientists could pass on inside information about "where science is going in the agency" to the host institution, creating the "appearance" of a conflict of interest. The agency also now believes that if employees discuss their government work at all, they could be "double dipping," or using public office for personal gain.
The 172 intramural scientists who signed the 8 November letter disagree. Because intramural scientists are not involved in awarding grants, "there can be no conflict of interest," states the letter, which was initiated by clinical center ethicist Ezekiel Emanuel. Banning activities that are "an essential part of free academic discourse" simply to allay public concerns "seems unjustified," the writers say. The letter also says that NIH staff should be able to "very modestly augment" their "low salaries" with these payments, and that barring them "will further erode" NIH's ability to recruit and retain good scientists.
Kington says there are no data showing that scientists are being driven away from NIH but adds that a planned 1-year pause in all industry consulting will allow NIH to "measure impact." Meanwhile, Zerhouni plans to meet with the scientists who signed the letter on 29 November.
NIH Conflict of Interest page