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Another Conflict Brouhaha for NIH

nem email.bmpAnother conflict of interest row looks in the pipeline for the National Institutes of Health, after a Chronicle of Higher Education story revealing the continuing reach of the old boys’ network in science, among other things.

At the centre of the web is Charles Nemeroff, who lost his job heading the psychiatry department at Emory University in Atlanta after it emerged he had failed to disclose at least $1.2 million in drug company payments. (You can read the details of that saga in this feature in Nature from last September.)

Nemeroff was job-hunting after losing his position when Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, took a call last summer from Pascal J. Goldschmidt, dean of the University of Miami’s medical school, reports the Chronicle. Goldschmidt was calling to check on whether Nemeroff, whom Insel had known for years, would be a good hire to head the medical school’s department of psychiatry.

Goldschmidt had emailed and Insel wrote back: “Dear Pascal, I cannot provide a formal, written recommendation by NIH rules. However, I can discuss informally by phone. Happy to do this.”

At the time Insel was heading NIH’s revamping of its conflict-of-interest guidelines for extramural researchers.

Three months later Nemeroff landed the job. Insel emailed him thus: “Congrats on the new position! Should be a new beginning!”

The new beginning included NIH allowing Nemeroff to apply for new grants after he started the Miami job in December – this despite the ban of “at least two years” on applying for new grants that Emory had imposed on Nemeroff one year earlier.

NIH also invited Nemeroff to serve on study sections: to be precise, two special emphasis panels on neurotechnology that were convened by the Center for Scientific Review and will be held this Friday, 11 June.

When asked to comment yesterday after a speech, NIH director Francis Collins requested questions via email, because of the sensitivity of the issue.

When asked specifically about NIH’s policy on study section service and eligibility for new grants for investigators who, like Nemeroff, have been sanctioned for breaking financial interest reporting rules his spokesman, John Burklow, responded via email thus: “As you know, we have proposed changes to the rules out for public comment. We’re also reviewing our policies for committee participation (peer review and advisory).”

You can read his full responses here.

Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, whose investigations first exposed recently subjected Nemeroff to severe scrutiny, was none too pleased with these developments [corrected 08/06]. Yesterday, he fired off this letter to the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, asking for an investigation of Insel’s aid to Nemeroff, and this one to University of Miami President Donna Shalala, asking for lots of documents related to Nemeroff.

From what we know, Insel broke no rules. It is clear though that the community needs to decide, quite consciously, whether someone who has flouted the rules and, like Nemeroff, been sanctioned, should be made to pay for those mistakes indefinitely into the future. That question is now squarely in NIH’s court. Those with feelings about it should take advantage of the open comment period on NIH’s proposed rules changes, which closes on 20 July. You can submit comments here.


  1. Report this comment

    Shannon Brownlee said:

    Charles Grassley’s office was not the first to expose Dr. Nemeroff’s multiple conflicts of interest. Melody Petersen wrote about Dr. Nemeroff for the New York Times in 2003, and I wrote about him for the Washington Monthly in 2004.

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