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NIH Goes Further on Consulting Rules

Amid ongoing scrutiny of moonlighting by National Institutes of Health scientists, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni today told Congress he is adding restrictions to reforms already in the works. The latest changes include new monetary limits, posting disclosure forms on the Internet, and limiting cash awards. A House committee also wondered whether it had been given "accurate" information about one particular arrangement that has attracted attention.

Today's hearing was part of a series by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which began investigating outside consulting at NIH in response to a December report in the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper detailed hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting payments to several NIH scientists and suggested these deals posed conflicts of interest. In May, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Zerhouni recommended new limits on NIH outside activities, including a ban on stock as payment and no consulting at all by senior officials.

Today, Zerhouni announced changes that go even further. He wants to limit outside income for all employees to 25% of their annual salary (the blue-ribbon panel recommendation was 50%), bar employees who file conflict-of-interest forms from holding any stock in a biotech or drug company, and ban any service on corporate boards. NIH also hopes to post on the Internet disclosure forms for employees who must file publicly, federal officials said.

Zerhouni also announced plans to limit cash awards. NIH will compile a list of "bona fide" awards. Even then, every award will have to be approved, and anyone who oversees funding decisions to the entity making the award can't accept the money.

Panel members seemed pleased with the latest reforms, with subcommittee chair James Greenwood (R-PA) calling them "constructive and substantial changes." But they remain troubled by past activities, including consulting done by two National Cancer Institute and Food and Drug Administration scientists for a competitor to a company with which NIH had a cooperative research agreement (Science, 28 May, p. 1222). Some committee members suggested that the scientists--Lance Liotta of NCI and Emanual Petricoin of FDA--gave inaccurate testimony at a May hearing. For example, Liotta said he had stopped consulting for the company, Biospect (now Predicant Biosciences) in February 2004, but continued to receive monthly paychecks until May.