Dr. Charles Nemeroff’s name is synonymous with what can go wrong when scientists who receive funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. government’s $31 billion a year medical research arm, fail to disclose business relationships that pose a conflict of interest.
In 2008 came the embarrassing revelation that the prominent psychiatrist accepted nearly $1 million in consulting fees from Glaxo Smith Kline over six years while also leading NIH research on that same company’s antidepressant treatments. Nemeroff was also the chair of the psychiatry department at Emory University.
The NIH is trying to bring more transparency to the private consulting work of thousands of investigators who receive NIH grants while working at teaching hospitals, universities and medical schools. It is proposing a regulation that would require each hospital or institution to create a website tracking the “significant financial” interests of faculty receiving NIH funding. A significant financial interest is defined as having a dollar value of $5,000 or more, and one that the institution determines creates a conflict of interest.
“It’s important to have to the ability to comment on the financial arrangements of people who receive NIH money in the extramural programs. Those arrangements should be seen by the public,” said Dr. Ned Feder, a former NIH scientist now with the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.
But Feder wants NIH to go a step further and create a single, public website that collects all the data.
That approach is also preferred by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which worries about the burden of additional government reporting requirements. Ann Bonham, chief scientific officer for the medical colleges group, in a written statement expressed concern “that the compliance burden may be extremely resource intensive and could outweigh any practical value to the public.”
NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins acknowledged the added reporting burden for institutions when he announced the proposed regulations in May. But, he said at that time, “it is essential to tighten up this situation in order to be sure that we are obtaining and maintaining the public trust in the integrity of the scientific enterprise.”
Some NIH grantees are also concerned about their pay becoming public. But Feder said “once you accept $100,000 or $1 million from the federal government, there’s a price you pay. You have to give up the privacy. There are abuses and it has really hurt science.”
But the NIH plan to tighten oversight of its contract scientists’ financial ties overlooks one important transparency issue, according to Marc Lipsitch, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. Lipsitch says the NIH should also restrict grant recipients from agreeing to private consulting work restrictions on their “ability to speak, publish, or otherwise undertake activities contrary to a company’s commercial interest.” As an example, he noted a recent report by the Mobile Press-Register, which obtained a copy of a contract BP offered to marine scientists that barred them from speaking about their data or sharing it with other scientists for at least three years.
The NIH has already received more than a hundred letters and emails from various medical groups and hospitals ahead of the August 19 deadline for public comment on its proposed regulation.
ABOUT THE DATA:
What: Proposal to require reporting of “significant financial” interests of NIH grantees from consulting work while employed at universities, medical schools, teaching hospitals.
Where: www.regulations.gov , docket number: NIH 2010–0001.
Availability: Some universities already make data publicly available voluntarily.
Format: Proposal would require each institution with NIH grantees to create website tracking financial interests of its faculty and principal investigators.
The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.