One truism of professional life is that some favors, no matter how alluring, should be politely turned down. The trick is predicting which bestowers of favors spell D-A-N-G-E-R, and which do not. Unfortunately, it looks like Dr. Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, made the mistake of accepting multiple favors from Charles Nemeroff, and he is now paying the price.
Several media outlets have covered this developing saga, or scandal, or Greek tragedy (following the analogy of the Trojan horse, the most famous examples of bad judgment in gift-accepting). The best and most thorough coverage is in this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which broke the story. Also, see today's coverage in the Washington Post, and ongoing coverage in Health Care Renewal.
Here's the digest of key events. Charles Nemeroff is a psychiatrist and researcher who makes friends easily, gives great talks, and exudes charisma and power. He's probably a genius and has an encyclopedic knowledge of neuroscience. Unfortunately, he has shown repeatedly that he is willing to bend institutional rules and play loose with the truth in order to accomplish his various financial and professional objectives. His self-imposed trials and tribulations are well known to readers of this blog.
The Low Points:
--2002: Nemeroff co-authored a review article saying wonderful things about an investigational antidepressant, mifepristone, without disclosing that he had a significant financial stake in the product. Nemeroff said that he would have disclosed the conflict of interest if the journal had only asked him to: "If there is a fault here, it is with the journal's policy." (see this coverage in the New York Times).
--2006: Nemeroff co-authored a positive review article about vagus nerve stimulation. The Wall Street Journal soon reported that Nemeroff neglected to disclose his significant financial relationships with Cyberonics (the maker of VNS), and that the article itself was possibly ghost-written by a medical writer hired by Cyberonics. This time, Nemeroff could not convincingly blame the journal, because he was the journal's editor-in-chief! He was soon forced to quit the post. (See my article covering the debacle here).
--2007: Nemeroff co-authored an industry-funded CME supplement to the journal CNS Spectrums which his "co-author" Linsey Devane called "ridiculous" and "inaccurate," and he claimed that Nemeroff had encouraged him to be involved "for the sake of selling CME time." (See my coverage here). Eventually, the ACCME determined that the article violated its Standards for Commercial Support because it was biased in favor of the Bristol-Myers Squibb's drug EMSAM.
--2008: Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal simultaneously broke the story that Nemeroff had consistently failed to disclose payments from GlaxoSmithKline for promotional talks, even while he was in charge of an NIH grant studying the company's drugs. This led to Nemeroff's resigning his chairmanship of the Emory University Department of Psychiatry.
Given Nemeroff's track record, I am surprised that Tom Insel agreed to endorse his standing with the NIH to Dr. Goldschmidt, the dean of University of Miami's medical school. The proper thing would have been for Insel to politely decline to discuss Nemeroff at all. In today's Washington Post, Insel is backtracking, saying that "I didn't recommend him" for the Florida job. But Goldschmidt's recollection of the phone conversation was that Dr. Insel "confirmed to me that Charlie was absolutely in fine standing" with the NIH, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education.
What a mess for Insel, for the University of Miami, for the NIH, and once again, for Charles Nemeroff. Now Senator Grassley is involved and is requesting all relevant information concerning the relationship between Insel and Nemeroff. Presumably, Insel's lapse of judgment in this matter was a result of his long-time friend "Charley" calling in favors--but exactly what those favors are will be determined once the documents are released.
File this under: "To be continued...."