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By Irene C. Kuo

The National Institutes of Health and the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration proposed guidelines last week that would prohibit biomedical and behavioral researchers who receive agency support from having outside financial interests that could influence their work, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The proposed guidelines prohibit scientists supported by government money from accepting fees or honoraria from a company that might be affected by the outcome of their research. A scientist evaluating a product for the government could not take money from the company that makes the product, for example. The proposal also prohibits researchers and their families from holding stock or stock options in such companies.

All federally-supported scientists would have to file financial-disclosure forms, and universities would have the task of reviewing the forms and eliminating any conflicts of interest. The agencies recommended that university committees adopt policies as strict as theirs, as they would perform checks on university policies and actions, and could withhold research money if they discovered deviations.

Universities could grant exceptions to the requirements if they deemed a scientist's financial holdings too insignificant to affect his judgment, but all exceptions would have to be reported to the agency supporting the scientist's research.

Scientists and their families or managers could own stock in a company with a stake in their research if the investment was made through a blind trust or a mutual fund.

Debate likely to intensify

The debate over researchers' potential conflicts of interest appears likely to intensify as a result of these policies. The director of federal relations at the Association of American Universities told the Chronicle that the agencies' belief that conflicts of interest can be eliminated is unrealistic. "The question ... is how you can handle conflicts to assure the unbiased and free reporting of results," she said.

US Rep. Ted Weiss (D-NY) who has presided over a series of hearings on conflicts of interest in research, including one that focused on MIT's Industrial Liason Program, supported the guidelines for containing "strong minimum standards for institutions to follow," but he was wary of granting exemptions to some researchers.

"Our investigation has shown that many universities are blind to potential conflicts of interest among their own faculty, and would probably rely heavily on exemption provisions," Weiss asserted.

The Chronicle reported that the director of the science and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science said she was concerned about the amount of paperwork created by the disclosure forms.

"I'd rather see scientists doing their research than filling out forms," she stressed.