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Our Opinion: Learning the Right Lessons

By The Editorial Board Posted: 01/22/2009
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On Oct. 7, we noted that the University was facing a tough test to its much-touted ethical commitments. News reports had surfaced that weekend raising questions about Charles B. Nemeroff, then the head of the School of Medicine’s psychiatry department, and about how Emory would proceed in handling the matter. Nemeroff, according to The New York Times and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) of the Senate Finance Committee, received consulting fees in excess of what is permitted by regulations from the University and the National Institutes of Health.

On Dec. 22, Emory’s internal investigation determined that Nemeroff had failed to disclose $800,000 in unreported outside income over the past five years, a violation of the University and federal conflict of interest policies. Earlier, Emory created a new University-wide central office to oversee the enforcement of conflict of interest policies and informed researchers of new financial disclosure regulations that apply to all new and pending grants from the NIH. In addressing the issue (and to the national spotlight that came with it), the University has handled a delicate matter thoroughly, quickly and temperately. It has allayed concerns about academic propriety through its forceful moves to increase oversight of conflict of interest policies. More importantly, through their actions and statements, University President James W. Wagner and Provost Earl Lewis have made it resoundingly clear that Emory must hold itself to the highest ethical standards.

Nemeroff has resigned the psychiatry department chair, and though he will continue in his teaching post, for the next two years he will be barred from participating in programs under the NIH or other sponsored research grants. He will be up for re-evaluation after two years. Nemeroff will also be restricted in the compensation he can receive for certain external activities.

The man who began the investigation, Sen. Grassley, has spoken favorably about Emory’s actions following the decisions concerning Nemeroff. Specifically, he praised Emory’s “accurate disclosure and transparency” —­­ two qualities that must be Emory hallmarks if the University is to remain committed to its goal of establishing itself as an ethically engaged institution.

The University’s decision to retain Nemeroff, citing his past contributions to the Emory community, to the field of psychiatry, and to developing positive relationships with students and faculty, is a wise move. One blemish on a researcher’s record should not overshadow many positive accomplishments. If, at the end of the day, this situation produces a valuable re-examination of the University’s policies, practices and academic culture, or if it helps redraw the line between academia and for-profit research, then at least this unfortunate story will have a positive epilogue.

The above staff editorials represent the majority view of the Wheel’s Editorial Board.

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