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NIH conflict of interest rules cut into industry collaborations

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Scientists who work at the US government’s flagship biomedical centre are collaborating less with industry as a result of a 2005 ethics crack down – and they’re not happy about it.

A new survey of scientists who work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), based in Bethesda, Maryland, finds that 80 percent of them consider the new conflict of interest rules too strict, while more than three-quarters say they impede NIH’s scientific mission.

After a string of Congressional hearings and newspaper investigations revealed lucrative relationships between some NIH scientists and drug companies, the agency instituted a strict new conflict of interest policy covering agency employees. The rules restrict scientists from consulting for pharmaceutical companies, health care insurers and providers and limit personal investment in these companies.

To measure the effects of the new rules, a team led by Eric Campbell, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, surveyed 900 NIH scientists, including both active researchers and administrators, and received 556 responses.

Before the new policy took effect, about half the NIH scientists surveyed worked with industry, which is similar to the proportion of academic researchers with industry ties. Now, just one third of them collaborate with industry scientists.

The ethics rules appeared to have little effect on productivity, though. Researchers published just as many papers before and after the rules were implemented. Patent applications also remained constant, Campbell’s team found.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, NIH researchers aren’t enthusiastic about the new ethics rules. Two-thirds of them say the rules have had a negative impact on their job satisfaction. More than half think the rules are preventing them from recruiting scientists, and 42% say the progress of their research had slowed as a result. The results are published in the latest issue of Academic Medicine.

“Our findings suggest that the same policy that increased faculty’s perceptions of public credibility of the NIH also made it more difficult for the organization to complete its mission,” Campbell’s team write.

The agency is currently pushing for stricter financial conflict of interest rules for the academic scientists who receive NIH grants.

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