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Guarding Emory’s Ethics

By The Editorial Board Posted: 10/06/2008
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Prodded by a congressional investigation on one of its foremost medical scholars, the University finds itself facing a tough test to its much-touted ethical commitments.

On Friday, congressional investigators led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Charles B. Nemeroff, the chairman of Emory’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, improperly disclosed to the University his income from advising pharmaceutical companies. At issue are the conflicts of interest that arise when researchers receive payments from pharmaceuticals — large payments which could be seen as tilting hugely influential academic work in favor of corporate interests.

And Nemeroff isn’t just any researcher — he’s a prolific author, a noted scholar and the former editor of a leading journal, Neuropsychopharmacology. That eminence landed his case on the front page of Saturday’s New York Times, which described him as “the most prominent figure to date in a series of disclosures that is shaking the world of academic medicine.” According to the Times, Nemeroff earned more than $2.8 million in consulting contracts with drugmakers from 2000 to 2007 and failed to report at least $1.2 million of that to the University.

Nemeroff has voluntarily stepped down from his administrative post while the University conducts an investigation on Grassley’s charges. But this is not the first time Emory has looked into Nemeroff’s financial disclosures. In 2004, a committee at the School of Medicine found that Nemeroff violated several policies, concluding that the “omissions were serious lapses.” The committee and the medical school eschewed punitive measures and left the handling of further conflicts to Nemeroff’s judgment.

But the lapses continued, according to Grassley and the Times. As the saying goes, hindsight is always 20/20, but a case such as Nemeroff’s — a case that raises suspicions about the University’s academic integrity, a case that imperils its reputation — would have benefitted from a more hands-on approach in 2004.

And it merits a hands-on approach now. As University President James W. Wagner said, “In the long run, Emory will be judged based on the integrity with which we respond to these questions [about Nemeroff]. So we intend to be deliberate and thorough, fair and just, ensuring that we have all of the facts, rather than making a hasty and potentially ill-informed rush to judgment.”

It is encouraging to hear that Provost Earl Lewis has announced the creation of a new, permanent committee for monitoring conflicts of interest across the University. Firm regulations on these issues do not exist, and so navigating the cloudy ethical guidelines can be a murky affair for researchers. That system seems in need of some reform, especially for a University that has placed ethics at the core of its ethos.

Grassley’s charges come at an unfortunate time for the University. Emory has just launched the most ambitious fund-raising campaign in its history, an effort to raise $1.6 billion — $1.07 billion of which would flow to the various health-care units. What’s more, the National Institutes of Health, which in the fiscal year 2008 contributed millions of dollars to Emory in research grants, would have the right to suspend some of the grants in light of the Nemeroff charges. The case stands to affect the University’s livelihood as well as its reputation, so its proper resolution is essential.

This is not the first time that these concerns have been raised about Charles Nemeroff. It can only be to Emory’s benefit to get out in front of this story and to voice a firm defense of academic propriety and honesty. Hopefully, the University will soon decide to take a harder line on these issues, both in this instance and with all such future cases.

The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board.

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