Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), yesterday offered a written mea culpa to his biggest critic on Capitol Hill. In a letter, Insel tells Senator Charles Grassley that certain of his actions “appear inappropriate” – to be specific, his helping a former colleague who had flagrantly violated NIH’s conflict-reporting rules land a job.
Insel has been on the hot seat ever since a Chronicle of Higher Education article appeared last month.It revealed that Insel had helped his longtime colleague, Charles Nemeroff, land a plum job at the University of Miami, by taking a call from the medical school dean there last summer. Insel assured the dean, Pascal Goldschmidt. that Nemeroff would be able to apply for National Institutes of Health grants from his new position in Miami. Eight months earlier, Nemeroff had lost his job heading the psychiatry department at Emory University in Atlanta after failing to disclose at least $1.2 million in drug company payments. In response, Emory demoted him and banned him from applying for National Institutes of Health grants for two years. (Details of that saga appeared in this feature in Nature last September.)
Since he began the new job at Emory last December, Nemeroff has been free to apply for NIH grants, and has served, by invitation, on NIH study sections.
On the heels of the Chronicle’s revelations, Insel has used his NIMH director’s blog to post statements espousing his devotion to cleaning up the conflict of interest environment and denying any impropriety in taking the call from Goldschmidt.
Yesterday, his tone changed.
In his July 7 letter to Grassley, the Iowa Republican who has made himself Capitol Hill’s primary watchdog on biomedical conflict of interest issues, Insel writes that Nemeroff’s failure to report his drug company income was “an egregious violation of NIH policy and university rules.” He added: “I do not condone the gap in our policy that allowed him to avoid the penalty implemented by Emory by moving to another university.”
As to his own role, Insel writes: “I now realize that my willingness to speak with a University of Miami official about Dr. Nemeroff’s eligibility for continued research funding from the National Institutes of Health may have created the appearance of favoritism. In retrospect, I regret that my actions, although routine in the case of other recruitments, appear inappropriate for a Federal research official given my past association with Dr. Nemeroff.”
It remains to be seen whether that will satisfy Grassley, who last month asked the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate Insel’s assistance to Nemeroff with his job hunt.
A reminder for those irritated by the loophole that has re-opened NIH coffers to Nemeroff: NIH is currently inviting public comment on a proposal to tighten financial reporting requirements for its extramural investigators. The comment period closes on July 20. Comments can be submitted here.