Science & Technology

Scientists for Sale

Innovation vs. ethics


In December 2003, the Los Angeles Times outed several scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who were being paid to research certain drugs' effects while collecting hefty consulting fees from the same drugs' makers. Embarrassed, NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni responded last February with draconian ethics rules that preclude employees from consulting for biomedical companies, accepting monetary prizes, or owning stock in drug companies.

Predictably, the scientists are outraged. "Even my secretary is going to have to sell her stock," said Ezekiel Emanuel, chairman of the agency's department of clinical bioethics, at a February NIH meeting. "How much sense does that make?" In one case, a scientist was forced to turn down an unpaid adjunct professorship because of the corrupting influence of a free parking spot.

The National Assembly of Scientists, an organization representing senior NIH researchers, has published a statement warning that the rules might produce a brain drain. "It's already happening," says Alan Schechter, chief of the Institutes' molecular medicine branch. "Certain search committees have stopped functioning, and there are a number of people who have left or are leaving."

That's not to say there isn't a real problem. In 1995 recruiting concerns induced the Institutes to allow outside consulting and speaking fees, likely leading to the conflicts of interest and resulting crackdown. Scientists at the NIH have discovered many things over the years, but evidently they haven't yet found a way to balance innovation and objectivity.?