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Public Access, Ethics Are Main ACD Issues

By Rich McManus

NIH's proposal to offer public access to archives of scientific literature supported by NIH (read taxpayer) money was presented in detail at the 89th meeting of the advisory committee to the NIH director on Dec. 2-3. Also outlined were plans to tighten conflict of interest rules at NIH; approval to institute a 1-year moratorium on honoraria and outside consulting with the pharma/biotech industry is being sought from the Office of Government Ethics and HHS.

With regard to public access, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni said, "We believe it is important for NIH to create a stable archive of peer-reviewed research," and touted its attributes — it would be a permanent record, publicly available, searchable online, a veritable one-stop-shopping compendium of the fruits of NIH investment that would also "allow us to monitor and manage the scientific enterprise." Zerhouni said it would represent "a significant increment to the world of archives, which would augment, not detract from" scientific publishing.

Dr. Charles Francis (r) makes a point as fellow ACD members look on, including (from l) Dr. Steven Paul, Dr. Thomas Ansfield, Dr. Linda Waite, Dr. Bettie Sue Masters and Dr. David Burgess, who delivered a heartfelt "swan song" in his final ACD meeting.

"NIH is not intending to publish," he emphasized, "but to preserve an active archive." He assured NIH's proposal "will preserve the critical role of journals in editing and presenting peer-reviewed research."

On the conflict issue, Zerhouni said the proposed moratorium would be a "time-out period to truly scrub our portfolio of consulting activities." Dr. Raynard Kington, NIH deputy director, told the ACD that the Office of Management Assessment is investigating every case that has come to light of inappropriate outside activities at NIH and that "fairly soon, we'll enter the penalty phase of these investigations...In a small minority, there's evidence that's troubling...some employees have substantially violated rules and regulations." He and Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research, acknowledged that NIH could have done a better job of including intramural scientists in their deliberations on ethics; a cadre of intramural investigators had complained to Zerhouni in the days prior to the meeting that their concerns were not represented in NIH policymaking on this issue.

The ACD also deliberated about ways to improve the NIH Director's Pioneer Awards so that they represent a more diverse population yet still preserve novel ideas as the most important criteria.

Outgoing ACD member Dr. David Burgess, a biology professor at Boston College, used the occasion for a "swan song" lamenting lack of progress in resolving health disparities, earning the trust of minority communities (he is a Cherokee Nation member) or making science a more diverse enterprise. "I feel like I have been a failure," he told the group, which spent time discussing why these issues — despite NIH's strong efforts — remain so intractable.

A work group report on basic behavioral and social sciences research, delivered by Dr. Linda Waite of the University of Chicago, suggested promoting the field from its current office status at NIH to a grantmaking body with a stable home in an institute such as NIGMS, NICHD or NIA. The ACD listened with interest and asked for a deeper look at the issues raised in the report, but appeared lukewarm about any major new effort, especially in an era of flattening research budgets.

The meeting ended with a tour of the new Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center, which Zerhouni called "the most significant addition to the NIH campus in more than 50 years."

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