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June 22, 2011
The NIH and Conflicts of Interest
The NIH has, it appears, been getting quite sensitive about conflicts of interest. There have been some rather ugly scenes involving ghostwritten articles (and entire books), and NIH director Francis Collins has said that the agency's guidelines are in the process of being revised.
You'd have thought that the existing ones would have banned that sort of thing, anyway. And in fact, it seems as if many scientists at the NIH already find the rules too restrictive. From the original paper that looked into this:
Eighty percent of respondents believed the NIH ethics rules were too restrictive. Whereas 45% of respondents believed the rules positively impacted the public's trust in the NIH, 77% believed the rules hindered the NIH's ability to complete its mission.
The problem, as so often happens, is whether your goal is to look good or to do your job, and you don't want to solve that conflict by redefining your job as just to look good all the time.
The reason I'm talking about all this is that I've heard of instances where people from NIH have refused (or felt as if they have had to refuse) invitations to give talks in industrial settings, because they feared conflict-of-interest problems. This seems perverse, especially for an agency that's talking about getting heavily into translational drug research. That'll have to lead to numerous contacts with industry, I think, in order to be much good at all. So how will the NIH manage that if the drug industry is seen as contaminating their Purity of Essence?
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