Senators say NIH ethics policies are now too stringent

After criticizing the NIH's old ethics policies for being too lax, senators now say the revamped rules go too far and are driving talented scientists out of government research.

During a hearing Wednesday, Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and ranking member Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said some tweaking is needed for the newly tightened rules aimed at preventing conflicts of interest.

"They are too onerous, and they must be redone, soon before you lose more people," Harkin told NIH Director Elias Zerhouni. "I think we've gone overboard."

Specter added that the committee will recommend ways to loosen the rules.

The senators' complaints centered on new rules governing when NIH employees must divest stocks. Under the rules, top NIH employees cannot buy stock in pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies, and current stockholders must sell their shares.

Last year, Specter threatened to get Congress to intervene if the NIH did not overhaul its ethics rules in response to allegations of improper relationships between government scientists and biomedical companies. But now the senators say they fear the new rules, which were announced in February, are prompting scientists to leave the agency and might harm recruitment.

Several high-profile scientists have said they plan to either leave NIH or not join it because they would have to divest long-held investments. Zerhouni said he has requested that the stock-divestiture portion be delayed while HHS reviews it. "We will be adjusting accordingly," he said.

During the hearing, the senators also decried proposed cuts in the NIH budget in the House and Senate fiscal 2006 budget resolutions. Specter and Harkin successfully amended the Senate version to restore about $1.5 billion to NIH, but Specter acknowledged that retaining that funding would be difficult.

"It will be a battle to keep that extra $1.5 billion in the budget," he said. Zerhouni said NIH would have to cut about 400 grants if the additional funding does not survive a House-- Senate conference.

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