NIH Defends Grant to Sanctioned Psychiatrist

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is defending its decision 3 months ago to award a research grant to Charles Nemeroff, the former Emory University psychiatrist who got into trouble for failing to tell his university about at least $1.2 million in consulting income from drug companies.

After Emory barred him from receiving grants for 2 years in December 2008, Nemeroff moved on to the University of Miami. In May, he won a 5-year, $401,675-a-year grant to study posttraumatic stress disorder. As reported today by the blog Pharmalot, NIH wrote Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) on 3 August in response to a query about the matter. One of Grassley's questions was why NIH had awarded the grant even though Nemeroff was being investigated by the Department of Health and Human Services’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Department of Justice.

In a 3 August letter to Grassley, NIH Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak explains that OIG and Justice investigations are confidential and peer reviewers weren't told about the review. "Absent any finding by the OIG or other actionable grounds at this time to exclude Dr. Nemeroff, the NIH followed standard procedures," the letter says.

Tabak also explains that Nemeroff's proposal went through usual reviews for scientific and public health value and that NIH asked the University of Miami about potential conflicts of interest involving the research. The letter notes that the study doesn't involve testing drugs. It also says that Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who has historical ties to Nemeroff, recused himself from the review. "I want to assure you that all procedures have been followed carefully in the process of awarding this specific grant to the University of Miami," Tabak wrote.

As part of the documents it gave Grassley, NIH included a "talking points" memo indicating that NIH was ready for criticism. The memo describes which officials should respond to questions about the grant and includes information similar to that in the letter to Grassley. It also says that the total grant is $690,000 a year for 5 years for a study at two sites—the University of Miami and Emory.

11:40 a.m., 14 August: Due to concerns about possible misuse, the image of the handwritten signature on Lawrence Tabak's letter has been obscured.

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