- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 29, 2006

Nearly 40 percent of the scientists conducting hands-on research at the National Institutes of Health say they are looking for other jobs or are considering doing so in order to escape new ethics rules that have curtailed their opportunity to earn outside income.

Most scientists say the ethics crackdown is too severe, and nearly three-quarters of them think it will hinder the government’s ability to attract and keep medical researchers, according to a survey commissioned by the government’s premier medical research agency.

The tightened rules were put in place last year after NIH found that dozens of scientists had run afoul of existing restrictions on private consulting deals that had garnered them money from drug and biotechnology companies.

Outside income from such companies is now banned. NIH also is placing greater restrictions and disclosure requirements on employees’ financial holdings.

“Of course, we are concerned when any employees are saying they might consider leaving as a result of a change of policy,” said Dr. Raynard Kington, the agency’s principal deputy director.

But he said Friday that the survey results are muddy because they combine both those actively seeking to leave and those thinking about it.

NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, in a letter to staff, said the survey “does suggest concerns about the impact of the regulations on recruitment and retention.”

But he added, “At this time, we do not anticipate revisions in the regulations.”

About 8,000 NIH employees, or about half the work force, responded to the Internet-based survey.

Employee job satisfaction was high overall, the survey found. But 39 percent of the scientists researching disease and cures — known as tenure and tenure-track scientists — said they actively were seeking new work or considering leaving NIH because of the rules.

Overall, 3,336 NIH scientists responded to the survey, including 512 tenure and tenure-track researchers.

Only 18 percent of agency scientists said they were trying to leave or considering it. Those who are not in the tenure group typically do not conduct research themselves and instead manage outside research conducted with NIH money by universities and other nonfederal entities. They are less likely to have private consulting opportunities.

One-third of NIH scientists said they think the new rules will hurt the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission, and most said the old rules could have been enforced better rather than tightened.

NIH officials said they want to question former and potential employees to see how the changes influenced their decisions.

Dr. Kington highlighted a finding that nearly nine in 10 scientists reported they still intend to work at NIH a year from now. Despite rumblings of low morale, he said the scientists’ job satisfaction rate of 81 percent reflects one of the government’s most positive work forces.

Officials also emphasized employees’ belief that the new rules will boost the agency’s credibility with the public. Seventy-three percent of respondents agreed with that, the survey found.

One NIH administrator who left because of the ethics rules said the agency’s changes were handled poorly.

“Dedicated public servants were harassed right out of NIH. That’s a disservice to us all,” said Edward Maibach, former associate director of the biggest NIH component, the National Cancer Institute. He is now director of public health communication at the George Washington University.

Mr. Maibach said he left the cancer institute nearly two years ago because new financial-disclosure requirements invaded his privacy.

The changes are “a dramatic backlash” against policies encouraging outside work by NIH scientists to speed practical application of scientific advances, he said.

Arthur Caplan, medical ethics chairman at the University of Pennsylvania, said that tighter rules were needed but that “we still haven’t figured out exactly how to manage conflict of interest.”

“To have a large number of the senior scientists unhappy spells trouble. You don’t want them to retire or leave,” he said.

“The leaders of the NIH and in Congress have to think a bit harder about giving a tiny bit of breathing room so that NIH scientists are not sent into a monastery from which they can’t ever come out in the name of scientific integrity.”

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