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NIH urged to disclose scientists' consulting fees


WASHINGTON - The National Institutes of Health should publicly disclose all drug company payments to its scientists and should bar employees from accepting stock or stock options from the industry, according to a draft report from a panel examining conflict of interest at the agency.

The report stops short of calling for a complete ban on company consulting deals with NIH scientists, but it recommends that the agency block top officials from participating in such arrangements. A copy of the report was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

The federal panel, called the NIH Blue Ribbon Committee on Conflict of Interest Policies, recommends that paid consulting not exceed 500 hours a year and that "special scrutiny be applied" if outside compensation exceeds half of an employee's yearly salary at NIH.

The committee compiled the recommendations in recent weeks as it prepares to present its final report to NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni early next month. If implemented by Zerhouni, the recommendations would reverse many actions taken by the agency in 1995 that loosened conflict-of-interest standards, including allowing NIH scientists to spend unlimited time consulting for outside employers with no ceiling on the resulting income.

Zerhouni appointed the 10-member panel after the Times reported in December that NIH employees had accepted hundreds of payments from companies and stock options, totaling millions of dollars. Directors of two of the NIH's research institutes - whose government salaries are $200,000 and $225,200 - received company fees or stock options worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. More than 94 percent of the top-paid NIH employees were not filing public income-disclosure reports.

At a congressional hearing Jan. 22, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the subcommittee that approved the NIH's $27 billion budget, warned Zerhouni to make major changes.

In the House, Rep. James C. Greenwood, also a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said NIH policies had led to not a revolving door but a "swivel chair" in which agency employees are paid simultaneously by the public and by industry.

Related inquiries have been opened by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services and by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Meanwhile, the work of the blue-ribbon panel is being watched closely by officials at the NIH and by congressional leaders. The panel's co-chairmen - Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Norman D. Augustine, retired chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp. - said this week that they would not discuss the committee's conclusions until a final report is submitted to Zerhouni.

Zerhouni was traveling yesterday and was not available for comment, an NIH spokesman said.

Times staff writer Jon Marino in Washington and researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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