Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services have loosened restrictions on ownership of pharmaceutical and biotech company stocks for employees of the National Institutes of Health under a final rule on conflict of interest.
But the final regulation announced at a teleconference on NIH conflict of interest regulations continues to bar NIH employees from engaging in outside consulting relationships with industry.
NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., called the final regulation "stringent" despite the changes to stock ownership.
"We have worked hard with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Government Ethics to try to come up with rules that first and foremost protect the integrity of NIH science and are balanced in terms of our ability to continue to attract and retain the best scientists and staff," Dr. Zerhouni said.
Under the final rule, which became effective in August, about 200 NIH employees with senior decision-making authority and their families will be required to divest of all stock holdings in excess of $15,000 per company for organizations substantially affected by NIH decisions. The deadline for divestiture is Jan. 30, 2006.
About 6,000 individuals will be required to disclose more details about their financial holdings. The other approximately 12,000 employees won't be asked to specifically disclose stock holdings, according to Raynard S. Kington, M.D., NIH deputy director. Employees may have to divest stocks on a case by case basis if a potential conflict of interest is found.
This is a shift in the policy spelled out by NIH in February 2005 in the wake of a series of congressional hearings that exposed a number of potential conflicts of interest by NIH scientists.
Under the policy outlined earlier this year, about 6,000 top NIH employees would have been required to sell off all of their stock holdings in companies impacted by NIH decisions. And the remainder of NIH employees would have been subject to the $15,000 limit.
The changes are designed to target the requirements at employees who are making decisions on grants and studies, Dr. Zerhouni said, and to ease restrictions on employees who are unlikely to have conflicts. "It's impossible to have a one-size-fits-all approach," he said.
The final regulation will also allow NIH employees more leeway to engage in outside activities with professional or scientific organizations, serve on data and safety monitoring boards, give grand rounds lectures, and perform scientific grant reviews. …