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NIH: We're Conflict Averse

Worried that the U.S. Congress will force its hand because of public concern, the National Institutes of Health is moving to change its rules on financial conflicts of interest for scientists who receive its grants. A new set of regulations could be ready in 6 months to 1 year, according to acting NIH director Raynard Kington at a meeting on Friday in Bethesda, Maryland. Last week, NIH submitted a draft list of questions to the White House on which it 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, get replaced with a more stringent limit or no lower limit at all?

--Whether NIH should strengthen its policing to make institutions comply by requiring independent confirmation of institutions' reports?

--Whether NIH should look for conflicts involving financial agreements between universities and companies

--Whether NIH should require investigators to disclose any and all of their  financial interests

The last possibility prompted Christine Seidman, a professor of medicine and genetics at Harvard Medical School in Boston, to observe that new requirements could mean that the amount of paperwork required to disclose financial ties could "very quickly exceed the scientific content" of a grant application.

She spoke at a meeting of the NIH director's advisory committee, which was webcast and should soon appear archived online. The questions will be released soon for public comment, officials said.

Current regulations require NIH grantees to submit "significant" financial conflicts to their institution, which then must report the conflict to NIH and assure that it has been managed or eliminated. This year, 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 in Atlanta who allegedly failed to report payments he received from drug and device companies.