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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Ensuring Public Trust

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Over the past 3 years, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has been investigating payments by pharmaceutical manufacturers to many academic leaders and researchers.  Several of the researchers identified in this investigation have been psychiatrists, and some have been supported by the NIH.  From the beginning, NIMH has been concerned that these allegations raise questions about the integrity of our funded research.  As a steward of public funds I am committed to ensuring that the research we support is unbiased and scientifically rigorous.

First, a few facts.  From the earliest allegations, NIMH has been aggressive (within the constraints of our legal authority) to ensure that we would not fund research to scientists or institutions violating federal policy.  Following review by NIMH and investigations by grantee institutions, some researchers have been removed from projects and, at least one left his position at a prestigious University. This researcher is not currently receiving NIH support and has not received NIMH support since December of 2008. Unfortunately, some public databases have not been updated to reflect these changes, leading to the mistaken impression that no changes had been made at NIMH. In fact, a new process began in the summer of 2008, when NIMH sent a letter to every principal investigator about the requirements for disclosure and implemented an aggressive approach to identify and prevent potential conflicts in our portfolio. While some applicants and grantees have been frustrated, I see this extra scrutiny as a necessary step to reforming a system that has lost public trust.

Most important, for over a year now, NIH has been working to strengthen Federal regulations on financial conflict of interest to ensure greater transparency and accountability and to prevent the introduction of bias in Federally supported research.  The revised policy will address the role of NIH in oversight and the role of grantee institutions in identifying and managing real or perceived researcher financial conflicts of interest.  We intend this proposed policy to be available for public comment by March.

At NIMH, as with the rest of NIH, our foremost interest is ensuring that the research we support is scientifically rigorous and trustworthy.  We also believe that the public’s urgent need for innovative treatments will benefit from transparent scientific collaborations between researchers in academic settings and those working for industry (pharmaceutical and biotech companies).  Consistent with our mission, I remain unequivocally committed to ensuring that public funds are used responsibly and efficiently for research that paves the way for prevention, recovery, and cure.