Money, Science, and Conflicts of Interest

By Jocelyn SelimApr 28, 2005 5:00 AM


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For more than a year, the National Institutes of Health has wrestled with two thorny issues: lack of public access to federally funded research and drug company payments to staff scientists. In February both issues were resolved.

Open access. Traditionally, academic journals hold all rights to scientific papers they publish. But with subscription prices of some journals reaching into the thousands and individual articles often selling for $25, critics have argued that access is prohibitive for libraries and researchers as well as civilians. After months of fending off complaints that publishers were profiting unduly from tax-funded research, the NIH reached a compromise. The agency will now require that scientists voluntarily post all federally funded research on the institute’s free-access Web site,, within 12 months, not the 6 months originally proposed. Publishers say they can live with the compromise. “This is a reasonable outcome,” said John Regazzi, spokesman for Reed Elsevier, one of the world’s largest publishers of scientific journals.

Ethics rules. Following four congressional hearings, NIH director Elias Zerhouni announced regulations prohibiting all NIH staff scientists from accepting outside income from biotech or pharmaceutical companies. The new rules follow newspaper reports, especially in the Los Angeles Times, that staff doctors and researchers had been receiving as much as $500,000 a year in outside income from consulting and speaking fees. Some critics, like Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), praised the decision for returning public confidence to government research. But some scientists, such as Thomas Stossel of Harvard Medical School, spoke out against it, saying stringent conflict of interest rules will cause talented staff scientists to quit and will hinder collaboration between government and private-sector scientists. 

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