Hoping to allay ongoing controversy about industry consulting by its staff, National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials plan to impose a 1-year ban on all outside paid activities for companies. The proposed moratorium, announced to staff today in a memo from NIH Deputy Director Raynard Kington, will allow NIH to sort out ongoing questions about possible ethics lapses and devise a rigorous oversight system.
The proposed ban comes after months of scrutiny of NIH policies sparked by a Los Angeles Times story last December that reported that some high-ranking NIH scientists had received thousands of dollars in payments from industry. In June, a House committee raised questions about some 100 consulting activities reported by drug and biotech companies that did not show up in NIH's own records (Science, 2 July, p. 25). After finding that some of these deals "were not properly reviewed," NIH has decided it needs a 1-year pause to complete its review and make sure a new "system" is in place, Kington says. He says NIH will then determine whether to make the ban permanent or allow consulting on "a limited basis" under new restrictions that NIH Director Elias Zerhouni proposed this summer. "Clearly, we believe there's value in some of these relationships," Kington says. (However, top-level officials and those who oversee grants have already been barred from consulting.)
The moratorium is not a huge shock, say some NIH scientists, because ongoing outside activities had already been suspended early this year for a re-review. Those that were approved and new ones can continue until the ban takes effect, which probably won't be for a couple of months. (NIH says there are fewer than 100 active arrangements.) After that, scientists can still advise industry, but they can't make extra cash for the work. "The fact is, science will move forward," says Robert Desimone, intramural research director for the National Institute of Mental Health. Some scientists say the temporary ban will bring welcome clarity, because the rules are confusing now.
National Academy of Sciences president Bruce Alberts, who co-chaired a blue-ribbon panel earlier this year that advised NIH to continue to allow some industry consulting, says the moratorium is appropriate. However, he maintains that some consulting should still be allowed to allow for scientific exchanges and maintain NIH's ability to recruit. "I think it would be a mistake if this [the ban] were the long-term policy," Alberts says.