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NIH Cracks Down on Scientists' Conflicts of Interest

Wednesday, April 6, 2005
As of March 7, 2005, National Institute of Health (NIH) employees are no longer allowed to accept consulting fees and stock options from pharmaceutical companies. A group of scientists have formed an association, the Assembly of Scientists, to roll back this commonsensical conflict of interest rule. (L.A. Times March 3, 2005 Home Edition).

In 1995, NIH director Harold E. Varmus made it easier for NIH employees to profit from ties to private industry by rescinding a rule barring scientists from accepting consulting fees and stock options from private companies. According the Assembly of Scientists, approximately 40% of NIH employees will suffer financial consequences from the recent ban on these “perks” of the job. Estimated in the tens of millions, the total sum paid by private companies to NIH scientists remains unknown because NIH policy encouraged scientists not to disclose outside sources of income (L.A. Times December 7, 2003 Home Edition).

In response to recent criticism in a 2004 GAO report, NIH for the first time created an official protocol for identifying and avoiding conflict of interest in its medical research. Still, the NIH relies on an “honor system” to prevent its scientists from engaging in research that may pose a conflict of interest. According to new rules published in January 2005, “the peer review system relies on the professionalism of each reviewer to identify to the SRA [Scientific Review Administrator] any real or apparent conflicts of interest that are likely to bias the reviewer’s evaluation of an application proposal.”

The NIH is not the only government agency trying to combat rampant conflict-of-interest problems. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee recently criticized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for trying to test pesticides’ health effects on poor children by paying their parent $900 each. Pesticide manufacturers partially funded the study, donating $2 million to the EPA in exchange for what they refer to on their website as “leverage.”

Without strict rules prohibiting collusion between government-funded science and private industry, the public now must sift through government-sponsored studies and examine who provided the money for the supposedly “unbiased” research. Shouldn’t the public have the right to government research that’s free from the effects of industry influence peddling?

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