The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is again being blasted for how it's handling an uproar over investigator conflicts of interest (COI). Paul
Basken of The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Tom
Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), gave a job recommendation for an old colleague who had been sanctioned by his
university for breaking federal COI rules while Insel was helping NIH overhaul the rules.
The one seeking a new job was Charles Nemeroff, former chair of the Emory University department of psychiatry. In 2008, a Senate investigation found
that Nemeroff failed to report at least $1.2 million of more than $2.4 million that he had received for consulting for drug companies. NIH suspended one of Nemeroff's grants, and in December 2008, Emory announced that it would not allow Nemeroff to apply for NIH grants
for 2 years.
Nemeroff then applied for a job at the University of Miami's medical school. According to e-mails that The Chronicle obtained, the
school's dean, Pascal Goldschimidt, e-mailed Insel in July 2009 to ask for a "confidential opinion" regarding Nemeroff. Insel replied that he could not
provide a written recommendation but could talk to Goldschmidt informally by phone, which he apparently did, according to the e-mails. (Goldschimdt
told The Chronicle he wanted to be sure Nemeroff could receive NIH grants and that Insel assured him "that Charlie was absolutely in fine
standing.") At the time, Insel co-chaired a new NIH committee to revise federal COI regulations; NIH proposed changes in those rules last month.
The two psychiatrists go way back: The Chronicle reports that Nemeroff helped Insel move from NIMH to Emory in the early 1990s and later lobbied
for him to become NIMH director. "It leaves everybody scratching their heads as to what Insel's posture and NIH's posture about ethics is,"
psychiatrist Bernard Carroll of the Pacific Behavioral Research Foundation in Carmel, California, a long-time critic of Nemeroff, told The Chronicle.
Still, it's not clear whether Insel violated any rules. NIH spokesperson John Burklow told ScienceInsider by e-mail that regulations allow Insel
to give a written or oral job recommendation for someone he dealt with during his federal employment. His membership on the COI committee had no
bearing on the Insel recommendation, Burklow writes.
Perhaps more troubling than Insel's phone call is that the punishment Emory imposed on Nemeroff did not move with him to the University of Miami.
Burklow told The Chronicle that NIH must "treat everyone equally unless they have been 'debarred' from funding." Although the Department of
Health and Human Services' (HHS) Inspector General is investigating whether Nemeroff broke federal law, "at this point a determination has not been made that
a violation occurred in this case," Burklow told ScienceInsider.
In general, because grants go to institutions, NIH deals with COI violations by sanctioning the grantee institution for how it oversees its
investigators, not individuals. That suggests that some researchers who break the rules and are sanctioned can find another job and "make a new
beginning," as Insel wrote to Nemeroff in an October e-mail congratulating him on his new position.
In a letter today to the HHS Inspector General, Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA) wrote that he was "extremely disturbed" by The Chronicle story and asks the Inspector General to "look into this matter." A similar letter to the University of Miami asks for documents and emails regarding Nemeroff's conflict of interest forms and NIH grants.