HHS OIG To Review Conflicts of Interest for NIH Grantees, Employees
HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson has announced that investigators will examine conflict-of-interest policies at NIH regarding scientists who are not employed by the agency but who use federal grant money, the AP/New Orleans Times-Picayune reports.
The review "will determine the extent to which the NIH oversees grantee institutions' financial conflict-of-interest issues," according to OIG. Current NIH guidelines for conflicts of interest do not apply to outside scientists. Their institutions are expected to apply their own conflict-of-interest rules and report any potential violations to NIH.
In a letter to Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Levinson said that because most grant money goes to outside scientists, it is important to extend investigations of conflict-of-interest policies to nonfederal grantees.
OIG officials "determined that this project was an important next step in examining NIH conflict of interest," Levinson wrote in the letter. Levinson also said that the policy review would investigate whether any conflicts of interest have affected federal and public interests.
Ned Feder, investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, said that conflicts can arise among outside grantees in the absence of disclosure. "Many senior scientists in academia supported by NIH also have well-paid private arrangements with drug companies, arrangements that may harm their medical research," Feder said (Beamish, AP/New Orleans Times-Picayune, 3/30).
Also in the letter, Levinson stated that OIG will re-open examinations of 103 NIH employees because of conflict-of-interest complaints (Beamish, AP/New Orleans Times-Picayune, 3/29).
The 103 scientists were investigated by NIH last year, and the agency found no wrongdoing in more than half of the cases. Six scientists were suspended for failing to get approval for outside work or report outside income, and others received written or oral warnings. NIH referred 10 cases to the inspector general, two of which were investigated. One resulted in a misdemeanor plea (AP/New Orleans Times-Picayune, 3/30).
Levinson said that his office now has concluded that "potential conflict-of-interest concerns existed with 103 NIH employees" and that investigators and attorneys "are presently examining these cases to determine whether investigation is warranted."
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair John Dingell (D-Mich.) said that Levinson's decision suggests that the earlier probes were not well done. Dingell said that Levinson "is taking a much-needed closer look. Even if only a few of those cases result in criminal prosecution, it is clear that NIH bungled the investigation the first time around" (AP/New Orleans Times-Picayune, 3/29).
Barton said, "The NIH specializes in great science, not detective work, and it shows," adding, "I hope the inspector general's inquiry will finally sort things out so everyone can have confidence that the public's interest is being fully served" (AP/New Orleans Times-Picayune, 3/30).