First published March 1, 2005 - More info
After months of deliberation, NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni formally announced on February 1, 2005, that federal scientists would be prohibited from consulting for pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device companies, as well as for any research institute that receives funding from the NIH. The new rules, which are expected to be put into effect quickly, also limit NIH researchers' stock investments in drug and biotech companies to $15,000 and earnings from prizes and honorariums to only $200.
The guidelines on consulting and accepting speaking fees were made liberal in the 1990s when former NIH director Harold Varmus was at the helm. Varmus encouraged outside consulting with the goal of recruiting better scientists to the NIH. But this policy drew widespread criticism for presenting researchers with potential conflicts of interest. In some cases, NIH employees accepted exorbitant, and perhaps unethical, consulting fees.
The new guidelines have brought about mixed reactions from the research community. Some argue that the rules put federal scientists at a disadvantage compared with their academic colleagues, many of whom engage in outside pursuits to boost their salaries and promote scientific discovery. They also fear this will discourage good scientists from working for the NIH. Supporters of the plan feel that these rules are needed to ensure the public's trust in the NIH and that they will not negatively affect scientific exchange. Of course, NIH collaboration with academia and industry is critical to the advancement of science and for bench-to-bedside translation of research. The impact of the new regulations on NIH recruitment and interaction with external colleagues will be monitored as these guidelines are implemented.