On February 2, 2005, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni announced an overhaul of agency ethics guidelines that would restrict all 18,000 NIH employees’ outside consulting activities for pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, insurers and health providers “in an effort to restore luster” to NIH’s “tarnished reputation.”

Under the revised guidelines, about 6,000 high-ranking NIH employees would no longer be allowed to hold stock in pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies, and current stockholders in that group must sell all shares. Other NIH employees “with no control over purse strings or policies” would be subject to a $15,000 limit on “health-related stock holdings.”

The guidelines would also limit awards that scientists may receive to no more than $200, with the exception of the Nobel and Lasker prizes.

The purpose of these revisions was to “codify the reversal of a trend toward liberalized links between NIH researchers and drug and biotechnology companies that began in 1995,” when then-NIH Director Harold Varmus eased consulting restrictions in an effort to speed medical advances to the market.

This shift is policy was originally supported by those on Capitol Hill. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said, “I welcome (NIH’s) decision today,” adding, “NIH’s well-deserved reputation as the world’s premier biomedical research agency was in danger of being tarnished.” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said, “For [NIH] to do the complex work of thwarting disease and saving lives requires near-absolute public confidence in the people who conduct the research. If the notion that private gain is supplanting public service as the guiding light for health research, NIH’s value to our nation will plummet”.”

Less than a month later, senior National Institutes of Health scientists met with NIH director Elias Zerhouni to discuss concerns that new ethics guidelines were excessive. Zerhouni stood firm on the new rules, while sympathizing with the grievances of the scientists, according to press accounts. Among other provisions, the new rules forbid 6,000 top NIH employees from holding stock in pharmaceutical or biotech companies. This rule, of course, drives the employees crazy and they want it relaxed or eliminated altogether.

These NIH scientists are now demanding the right to invest in the same companies that are affected by their research. Does this bother you as much as it bothers me?

An article in the Wall Street Journal suggested that aside from the financial restrictions, the rules have angered NIH lifers on a deeper level: Their pride was hurt. Internal NIH scientists — who have included five Nobel laureates — wanted to be treated more like academic rock stars, not as mere scientists in a government lab. To many of them, the rules reek of diminished status.

Among those who spoke in opposition was Dr. Lance A. Liotta, a laboratory chief at the National Cancer Institute. Interviews and government records would later show that Liotta – while leading the government’s collaboration with a Maryland company to develop a test for early detection of ovarian cancer – had accepted $70,000 in fees from a competitor firm. Liotta did so with the approval of his supervisors at the National Cancer Institute.

What a difference a day makes………

Well, do not fear boys and girls, just this past Wednesday, after receiving literally hundreds of complaints (AKA whining by NIH scientists) along with bipartisan pressure from Capitol Hill (you know they had to weigh in eventually too), the National Institutes of Health is now saying that it will reconsider some of its conflict of interest regulations.

The NIH was apparently inundated with hundreds of letters and phone calls, mostly critical, of its revamped conflict of interest regulations implemented in February.

Most of those letters and phone calls argued that the regulations were too restrictive and would turn talent away from the agency.

“It may harm our ability to recruit and retain the best and the brightest” of the scientific community, Kington said of the new policy. He said that this could result in the agency losing potential employees to the private sector and to university laboratories.

Kington would not say what specific regulations would be revamped, but said “we are hopeful we can make adjustments.”

U.S. Representatives Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Tom Davis, R-Va., twice co-wrote letters to NIH director Elias Zerhouni demanding that the agency place a 90-day suspension on the regulations’ implementation to review the new policies. (Hmm, VA and MD…) The congressmen said that the new regulations are too broad.

Whatever the prevailing force behind this apparent self-righteous outrage by “NIH superstars” – greed, pride, a sense of entitlement – none is a legitimate reason for awarding NIH staff special privileges. In this context, I cannot help but to think that when somebody tells me it’s not the money but the principle, I’ll lay a thousand to one odds, it’s the money.

In almost any other profession, this debate would not even be taking place.

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