Internal NIH Review Finds Many Agency Scientists Involved in Undisclosed Consulting Arrangements
More than half of NIH scientists examined in an internal review violated the agency's previous policies or recommendations on drug company consulting payments, according to excerpts from the ongoing review provided recently to Congress by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, the Los Angeles Times reports. The review examined whether 81 NIH scientists had consulted for drug companies without first receiving required permission from the agency, whether the scientists disclosed company payments on annual forms and whether they performed services for drug companies on "government time," the Times reports.
NIH has since issued revised interim conflict-of-interest rules for scientists, which Zerhouni has said are still provisional and might be changed. According to the review, 44 scientists were found to have "violated policies or regulations and were recommended for administrative action." According to NIH, eight of the scientists cited have left the agency and are not subject to administrative action. Nine others, who were not named, have been referred to the HHS inspector general for further investigation.
In a letter dated Friday to three members of Congress, Zerhouni wrote, "We discovered cases of employees who consulted with research entities without seeking required approval, consulted in areas that appeared to conflict with their official duties, or consulted in situations where the main benefit was the ability of the employer to invoke the name of NIH as an affiliation."
In March, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) in a letter to Zerhouni posed questions about the agency's consulting practices.
In spring 2004, after the committee was "unable to obtain documentation" of such arrangements, the committee wrote to 20 drug company executives requesting that they voluntarily identify consulting fees paid to NIH scientists, the Times reports. The companies provided 81 names that were not on a list of scientists NIH had delivered to the committee.
Barton said Wednesday that the findings show the "ethical problems (at the NIH) are more systemic and severe than previously known."
NIH spokesperson John Burklow said that officials had sought to respect employees' rights to due process and privacy (Willman, Los Angeles Times, 7/14).