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Project on Government Oversight




One More Scandal at the NIH

June 7, 2010 


Dr. Thomas Insel, a top official at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a leader of the NIH's current efforts to deal with financial conflicts of interest, has a conflict of his own to explain—one involving obligations arising from a close professional relationship rather than from improper financial incentives.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today that Dr. Insel lent a helping hand to Dr. Charles Nemeroff, one of the most blatant violators of the NIH's financial conflict-of-interest (COI) policies. It seems that Dr. Insel encouraged Dr. Nemeroff, despite his sorry record of  COI-related deception, to apply for new NIH grants. He also helped Dr. Nemeroff, who was still under a cloud because of this deception, get a job at the University of Miami. The author of the article, Paul Basken, notes that the "actions by Dr. Insel, during a period of heavy Congressional pressure on the NIH to institute reforms, raise new questions about the NIH's stated commitment to attacking the problem of financial conflicts of interest in taxpayer-financed medical research."

On several occasions in the past Dr. Nemeroff helped his colleague, Dr. Insel, get a job—first at Emory, later at the NIH, according to the Chronicle article. The article quotes a former supervisor of Dr. Nemeroff as saying that the career assistance for Dr. Insel is "part of a strategy in which Dr. Nemeroff would 'put people in debt to him, and then call in the chips later'."  

Dr. Insel and other NIH leaders are planning, within the next year, to impose new financial constraints on NIH-funded scientists in medical schools and universities across the country. POGO thinks it's reasonable to predict that some of these scientists, with their salaries and research funded in part by taxpayers, will be kicking and screaming over the restraints on their income from private companies when the new rules take effect.

POGO believes that the new rules should include a requirement that NIH-funded scientists disclose their private financial arrangements as a condition of receiving an NIH grant. The posting of their financial arrangements on a public database should be similar to that required of Members of Congress and their staff. Whether this requirement will be a part of the new NIH rule is uncertain. It may depend on how far the NIH's leaders, including Dr. Insel, decide to go in imposing this requirement on their fellow-scientists in academia.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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