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  July 25,  2005
Volume 83, Number 30
p. 13


  Catching NIH's Ethics Violators
Health agency updates Congress on its review of employee consulting activities

Barton Elias A. Zerhouni
Barton Zerhouni


As many as 36 NIH employees violated government conflict-of-interest policies or regulations, the agency has found in an internal investigation. The investigation was in response to questions raised by the House Energy & Commerce Committee, which has been looking into conflict-of-interest issues at NIH for more than a year and a half.

"The need for scientific exchange does not supersede the legal and moral responsibility of NIH employees to engage with private-sector colleagues in a manner that does not result in real or apparent financial conflicts of interest," NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni wrote in a letter to the committee. He added that "at their worst, these conflicts, whether potential or actual, could reduce the nation's commitment to research priorities and slow the substantial progress we have made" in treating diseases and injuries.

According to information released by the committee on July 14, NIH completed its investigation of 81 researchers identified by the commerce committee. These researchers were under suspicion because their names appeared on lists of consultants provided to the committee by major drug companies but not reported by the agency.

In his letter to the committee, Zerhouni reported that, of the 81 people identified as engaged in consulting activities, 37 had received prior approval, reported the activity properly on financial disclosure forms, and took leave for time spent on consulting. The remaining 44 scientists, however, were found to have violated policies or rules, with 36 being referred for administrative action. Eight of these scientists are no longer NIH employees. Zerhouni noted that nine of the researchers were referred for further investigation to the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Inspector General.

In addition to the 81 researchers identified by the committee, Zerhouni's letter stated that NIH is looking into an additional 22 conflict-of-interest cases that were not already on the list identified by the committee.

"These findings indicate that the ethical problems are more systematic and severe than previously known," said Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) in response to the NIH investigation. Barton noted that final ethics rules for the agency are needed as soon as possible and underscore the need for Congress to reauthorize the agency this year. In a reauthorization, Congress examines and can restructure and redefine an agency's mission if lawmakers believe that is necessary.

In fact, draft legislation to reauthorize NIH was presented by Barton last week at an Energy & Commerce hearing. Although the draft legislation as written does not address the conflict-of-interest issue, the final bill is expected to contain language dealing with those problems at the agency.

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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