NIH tightens its ethics rules

Beginning in 2003, news stories charged that hundreds of National Institutes of Health scientists were engaged in ethically dubious practices, including consulting for or holding stock in companies whose products might benefit from NIH support. After internal and congressional probes of these potential conflicts of interest, NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni announced on Feb. 1 “drastic” ethics reforms.

From now on, no one at NIH may accept even unpaid side work with any organization that might have a financial interest in any research or other activity going on at, or supported by, the agency. Furthermore, NIH employees in key positions and members of their immediate families will be forced to sell stock holdings in biomedical firms. Other employees may hold no more than $15,000 in such stocks.

Physicians, scientists, and other specialists on the NIH payroll will still be permitted to treat patients for fees, teach bona fide university courses, write textbooks, and receive payment for activities related to continuing medical education.

Over the next year, federal officials will evaluate whether these new limits diminish NIH’s ability to recruit and hold experienced staff.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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