Five years ago after a scandal erupted over employees who were consulting for drug companies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) banned most such
relationships by in-house scientists. A new study finds mixed effects. The rules apparently haven't hindered scientific productivity, the survey finds.
But a whopping 80% of NIH scientists find the rules too restrictive, and many say they have hampered the agency's ability to recruit new faculty
NIH banned most industry consulting by its staff members after a newspaper
investigation found that some senior researchers were earning large sums of money from companies. Intramural scientists warned that the strict rules
would drive staff away. Darren Zinner of Brandeis University, Eric Campbell of Massachusetts General Hospital, and colleagues have now published the
first peer-reviewed study on the rules' impact. It is based on a survey from October 2008 through January 2009 sent to 900 senior investigators and
administrators; 70% responded.
Not surprisingly, industrial ties are now fewer—only about 33% reported an industry relationship, down from about half before the 2005 rules. This
hasn't affected the average researcher's output of papers and patent applications, the survey finds. And nearly half of those surveyed say the new
rules have improved NIH's public image. But 80% say the rules are too stringent, 77% think it is now harder to accomplish NIH's mission, and 66% are
less satisfied with their jobs.
More than half of researchers and 78% of administrators said the rules have made it harder to recruit new faculty members. Although NIH may have gained
public credibility, the rules "also made it more difficult for the organization to complete its mission," the authors of the study conclude in the
November issue of Academic Medicine.
NIH officials put a positive slant on the study in an accompanying commentary. Interactions with industry "have continued relatively unaffected,"
writes Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research, and NIH ethics officer Holli Beckerman Jaffe. They point to trends in new
cooperative agreements between NIH researchers and companies (known as CRADAs), which, after dropping in 2006, have risen to previous levels of more
than 30 per year. Yet the rules, they acknowledge, "have challenged NIH's ability to attract and retain some of the most qualified scientists."
NIH is now preparing to tighten the rules for
extramural scientists as well, watching outside consulting in particular—although mainly by asking researchers to report more information to NIH and
their institutions. The planned changes would not restrict what grant recipients can do as long as potential conflicts of interest are reviewed and
managed. Interestingly, despite their unhappiness with the much tighter rules at NIH, two-thirds of the intramural NIH researchers surveyed think the
same rules should apply to their NIH-funded peers at academic institutions.