Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? Redux

Revised HHS Rules for Conflict of Interest Fall Short

This morning NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins announced revisions to the existing 1995 regulations on objectivity in research that is funded by the Public Health Service. The focus is on significant financial interests (SFI) and on financial conflicts of interest (FCOI). The regulations illustrate the 3-way dance involving academic institutions (the grantees), NIH (the grantor) and academic scientists (the investigators). Thanks to Senator Grassley (R-Iowa) and his investigator Paul Thacker, headlined revelations in recent years about unacceptable management of FCOI at places like Stanford (Alan Schatzberg), Emory (Charles Nemeroff) and Harvard (Joseph Biederman) forced these revisions of the NIH regulations.

The general initial reaction to the new rules has been critical – here and here, for instance. Many stakeholders had urged the NIH to require that institutions make the disclosed FCOI of their investigators available on a public website. Dr. Collins had intimated that we could expect to see this change, so there is consternation that it somehow became derailed by institutional lobbying in recent months. The stated concern was that institutions would feel burdened by the need to maintain these data bases. Instead, if citizens wish to inquire about FCOI involving PHS-derived research funding, they will need to write to the institution, which is obliged to respond within 5 days. That’s not exactly user friendly. POGO today made the smart suggestion that the data could easily be attached to information about awarded funds on the NIH RePORTER website, that already exists.

A second failing is that the revised regulations do not close the regulatory loophole through which Charles Nemeroff strolled when he moved from Emory to the University of Miami. We covered that incident several times on this blog last year. Though Nemeroff was under a 2-year sanction and banned from participating in NIH-funded research at Emory, his friend Thomas Insel, Director of NIMH, assured the dean of the medical school at Miami that Nemeroff was in good standing to apply for NIH funding when he moved from Emory. To underline the point, Insel displayed the bad judgment of appointing Nemeroff to 2 new NIMH review committees.

Do today’s revised regulations prevent a repeat of this administrative travesty? No, they don’t. There is some mention of ensuring oversight if a sanctioned investigator wishes to transfer a grant to a new institution, but nothing to prevent the Nemeroff-Insel dance from being repeated. Here is the relevant section of today’s announcement (page 89):

We did, however, agree with one respondent that it would be helpful to clarify, in the grants context in particular, that institutional sanctions against an Investigator can travel with the Investigator upon his or her transfer to another Institution. Specifically, we have revised 42 CFR 50.606, paragraph (a), as follows: “If the failure of an Investigator to comply with an Institution’s financial conflicts of interest policy or a financial conflict of interest management plan appears to have biased the design, conduct, or reporting of the PHS-funded research, the Institution shall promptly notify the PHS Awarding Component of the corrective action taken or to be taken. The PHS Awarding Component will consider the situation and, as necessary, take appropriate action, or refer the matter to the Institution for further action, which may include directions to the Institution on how to maintain appropriate objectivity in the PHS-funded research project. The PHS may, for example, require Institutions employing such an Investigator to enforce any applicable corrective actions prior to a PHS award or when the transfer of a PHS grant(s) involves such an Investigator.”

This revision is intended to reference the range of options for the PHS Awarding Component to consider, depending on the specific circumstances at issue. For example, PHS may decide to initiate government-wide suspension or debarment of the Investigator under 2 CFR Part 376; or to use enforcement measures under 45 CFR 74.62, e.g., perhaps to make the approval of a transfer contingent upon the former Institution’s disclosure of the corrective action- including the specific sanctions against the Investigator- to the new Institution; and/or to use special award conditions under 45 CFR 74.14, e.g., perhaps to make the new Institution agree to take the same or similar action against that Investigator or explain to the PHS Awarding Component in writing why such action was not taken and what alternative measures will be used to ensure compliance.

What’s wrong here? Everything is optional; everything is discretionary; everything is contextual – that is a formula for NIH and the academic institutions to just look the other way. And if a Nemeroff decides just to relocate without transferring a grant then he is free to start reapplying again right away. Miami would not be required to continue applying the Emory sanction banning him for 2 years from involvement in federal grants. The PHS Awarding Component (NIMH in this case) may or may not get involved, or it may pass the buck to the new institution. So what has changed? If it is left up to compromised federal bureaucrats like Thomas Insel, and institutional administrators like Pascal Goldschmidt at Miami, then nothing has changed. It's business as usual, folks.

Dr. Collins, you have not done what you set out to do. Too bad.