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NIH: We're Conflict Averse

Worried that Congress will force its hand because of public concern, the National Institutes of Health is moving to change its rules on financial conflicts of interests among scientists that receive its grants. A new set of regulations could be ready in six months to a year, according to acting NIH director Raynard Kington at a meeting on Friday at the institutes. Last week NIH submitted to the White House a draft list of questions on which NIH wants public input, which will help them shape the new rules:

-- How to define whether a financial interest is “significant.” Should the current definition, which exempts any financial conflict worth less than $10,000, stay in place?
-- Whether NIH should strengthen its work to make institutions comply. Would stronger policing lessen the likelihood of biased research?
-- Whether NIH should oversee institutional conflict, rather than just individual conflict. If so, how would NIH define institutional conflict of interest?
-- Whether NIH should require investigators to disclose any and all financial interests directly to it.

The last possibility prompted Christine Seidman, a professor of medicine and genetics at Harvard Medical School, to observe that new requirements could mean that the length of disclosures “very quickly exceed the scientific content.”  Huh? Length? Paperwork? She spoke at a meeting of the NIH director's advisory committee, which was webcast (LINK please/archived?). The questions will be released soon for public comment, officials said.

Current regulations require NIH grantees to submit “significant” financial institutions to their institution, which then must report the conflict to the NIH and assure that it has been managed or eliminated. This year, the NIH reviewed 20 cases of alleged failure to follow the rules. Six are still being investigated, but so far, NIH has found just one case in which rules were broken: that of a psychiatrist at Emory University who allegedly failed to report payments he received from drug and device companies.