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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: NIMH — Reducing Conflict of Interest, Ensuring Public Trust

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Over the past five years, there have been several psychiatrists implicated in financial conflicts of interest (fCOI). Some of these psychiatrists were funded by NIMH. Two questions have been raised: is fCOI a greater problem for psychiatrists than other medical specialties? And is NIMH part of the problem or part of the solution? I addressed the first question in a recent JAMA commentary.

The second question – what is NIMH’s role? – is raised by allegations that NIMH has not taken this problem seriously and that as Director, I have failed to take action against those who have been accused. These allegations are particularly surprising to me because the Institute has done so much to ensure that the research we fund meets the highest standards of integrity—free of bias or hidden agendas. Beginning in August 2008, NIMH established a new internal process to review all grants prior to funding and all nominees for advisory panels prior to appointment to identify potential fCOI issues. When concerns arise, we require the institutions involved to provide additional information regarding compliance with the current fCOI Regulations to ensure the fCOI has been managed, reduced or eliminated.

The Institute is taking additional steps to preserve the integrity of NIMH-supported research. NIMH is developing a training course to help those in academic psychiatry understand the reasons for Regulations regarding fCOI.

In addition, as part of our mission, NIMH supports research to study problems in the use of evidence based practices, such as the continued under-utilization of psychosocial treatments and the ways by which certain medications may become overused.

Concurrently with the Institute’s aggressive stance to address fCOI, NIH (with NIMH in a leading role) has proposed a new approach towards strengthening Federal Regulations. A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was published on May 21, 2010 outlining a more rigorous approach to investigator disclosure, management of conflict by universities, and federal oversight. Available for public comment until July 20, 2010, we urge our many partners to review and comment on these proposed revisions to the current fCOI Regulations. We are hopeful that with strengthened Regulations, the Institute will be more efficient and proactive in minimizing potential sources of bias in research.

There is an additional question being asked of those who have violated existing policies: Will they be permitted to apply for grants? Any scientist can apply for NIH funding unless he or she has been “debarred”, the result of an official process handled at the level of the Department of Health and Human Services. Absent this, all applicants must be treated fairly and equally.

NIMH has a critical national mission: to transform our understanding and treatment of the nation’s most disabling disorders (WHO 2008). This will require the best minds from government, academia, and the private sector working for the public good and not for personal gain. As the steward of public funds at NIMH, I am committed to ensuring that we support science that is unequivocally in the public’s interest, unambiguously supported by the public trust.