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NIH director acknowledges Nemeroff’s end-run on conflict regulations

Francis Collins, the National Institutes of Health director, spoke for the first time publicly today in reaction to this article that ran in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Monday, revealing a new twist in the saga of Charles Nemeroff. Nemeroff lost his position heading the psychiatry department at Emory University in Atlanta 18 months ago, after failing to disclose at least $1.2 million in drug company payments. We first blogged on the Chronicle story here.

Speaking at the semi-annual meeting of his advisory committee, Collins gave a snapshot of the Chronicle story, which reported among other things that Nemeroff was last summer deemed eligible by NIH to apply for new agency grants, despite a ban on such applications of “at least two years” instituted by Emory when it demoted him in December, 2008. The biomedical agency also invited Nemeroff to serve on two special emphasis panels on neurotechnology which convene on June 11.

Collins explained to his advisors NIH’s bedrock principle that grants go to institutions, not investigators, which allowed Nemeroff to evade the no-grants sanction when he took up the chairmanship in psychiatry at the University of Miami last December.

But in all the mess, there is a “silver lining,” Collins declared, because the Chronicle story “brought to light NIH grants policies that may need to be addressed. And this comes at a time when we do have this [proposed change to NIH’s financial interest reporting rules] out for public comment — and we have the chance ourselves to consider whether this example might suggest some additional changes.”

“Perhaps,” Collins said, “particularly in this sensitive area, we can come up with ways of reaching through the institution to the individual [to] make sure that decisions that are made are actually going to stick and not be possible for them to evade.”

“We have some ideas about how to do that,” he continued, “but we have to be sure what our legal status is about our ability to implement them. “

Collins also wondered aloud “whether we should strengthen our policies regarding committee participation including peer review and advisory groups in circumstances of this sort.”


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