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Michael Gottesman

Reading the list of "thou shalt nots" in a government ethics handbook, taking a computer based ethics training course, filling out a financial disclosure form, or perusing the Web-posted ethics memo,


recently sent to all intramural scientists strongly inspire the question, Why? In this column I hope to answer that question.

One fundamental source of confusion for intramural scientists in understanding the laws and standards that govern our behavior is familiarity or comparison with the rules that apply to our colleagues outside of NIH. Whereas scientists at all types of institutions fall under a universal set of ethical standards, we, as government employees, are subject to an additional layer of specific laws that define and restrict activities that create conflict of interest, or the appearance of conflict of interest, for people receiving their paychecks from the government.

Conflict of Interest for All Scientists

Ethical standards for all scientists-inside or outside the government-dictate that we must avoid situations in which we are biased for or against an individual or idea to the extent that we cannot render a fair judgment about the science.

This standard means, for example, that scientists should not serve as formal reviewers for grant proposals or journal submissions by colleagues who are close friends, relatives, recent collaborators, or sworn enemies. Similarly, colleagues from the same institution may not review each other's scientific activities for grant support from an outside organization.

These professional ethical standards are not necessarily legal restrictions, unless certain financial interests may be affected; nevertheless, these standards are an essential linchpin of ethical behavior for all scientists.

Legal Conflict of Interest For Government Workers

Beyond the bias standard that applies to all researchers, the standards of conduct for government workers require, in addition, that we not use, or even appear to use, our government positions for personal gain, for the gain of a close family member, or to unfairly help one specific, favored person benefit from a government program-unless all eligible persons can benefit equally. One reason for this legal restriction is that government workers are supposed to represent the public interest in all of their dealings. They do not represent themselves or other individuals.

An immediate consequence of this law is that, as a government worker, an NIH scientist cannot collaborate on a project as part of official duty for which he or she is paid by the government and also receive any form of compensation from outside collaborators. Thus, it is possible to have a CRADA with a company as part of official duty, but not simultaneously to receive compensation for consulting with that company.

With these "whys" as background, venture into this Web site for more information about activities that may constitute legal conflict of interest:

< http://www1.od.nih.gov/oir/SDs_Primer/chap2/conflictguide.html.>

A more subtle consequence of our obligation to ensure even-handed representation of the public interest is that we cannot act as co-investigators on grants submitted by collaborators, nor can we write such grants. To do so would be using our official positions as government employees to help one particular individual or institution obtain government funds.

However, we can collaborate on grants as part of our official government research activities, provided that our contributions are not a substantial part of the grant application. When an intramural investigator would potentially be a major contributor, the work should be managed through a cooperative agreement approved by the extramural grants manager.

All intramural scientists should have received the memorandum from my office explaining in detail what is legally acceptable in this arena and what is not. The fundamental point of the memo is that every letter of collaboration with outside investigators should be copied to your Scientific Director, who may have questions for you about the extent of the collaboration.

If you have any doubt about whether an activity represents a legal conflict of interest, you should discuss it with your supervisor, who may refer you to your agency ethics advisor. Once you have received approval for such an activity, or a waiver from conflict-of-interest rules, you may proceed, provided that you conduct the activity in compliance with the law.

Remembering the basic "whys" and knowing whom to contact if you have questions should be considerably easier than memorizing long lists of forbidden acts.

Our hope is that, by understanding the principles behind conflict-of-interest rules and standards of conduct, researchers can avoid serious legal or professional problems.

-Michael Gottesman
Deputy Director for Intramural Research

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