Responding to an uproar last year over industry consulting by staff, the National Institutes of Health today announced a ban on all such interactions by NIH intramural scientists. Many employees will also have to sell their stock in biotech and drug companies.
NIH took a hard look at its consulting policies, which the agency loosened in 1995, after a December 2003 report in the Los Angeles Times suggested improprieties and Congress investigated. Last year, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni proposed new limits, including a 1-year ban on all consulting (Science, 24 September 2004). Today he released what he called "sweeping new ethics regulations" that implement the ban, which also prohibits lecture honoraria and even uncompensated private consulting for professional societies. The new rules also require senior staff to sell off biotech or drug company stock within 150 days. NIH scientists can still receive payments for teaching, writing, editing, and practicing medicine, however; they can also interact with industry as part of their official duties.
While the 96-page regulation is "interim" and will be evaluated after a year, it will stand unless data show it is harming recruitment and retention, Zerhouni said. He told reporters that he changed his mind about preserving some consulting after realizing that some employees' deals amounted to "product endorsement." Banning only those activities would not be possible, he said, and "nothing is more important for NIH than preserving the public's trust."
Members of Congress who criticized NIH last year praised the new policies. But several NIH scientists who asked not to be named told Science they think the ban is already encouraging some researchers to leave. "Everyone I know who's a top flight person" is looking around, said one. To combat that potential flight, Zerhouni says he is seeking approval to raise the current annual salary cap of $200,000.