Deals with scientists taint NIH research

Editorial: San Antonio Express-News

Web Posted : 12/28/2003 12:00 AM

National Institutes of Health scientists are damaging the credibility of their work by receiving consulting fees, stock options or other types of pay from drug companies whose products they research for the federal government.

The Los Angeles Times this month exposed the disturbing trend among senior NIH scientists of moonlighting for biomedical companies and legally being able to keep that information from the public.

The situation isn't fair to American taxpayers, and the potential conflicts of interest are phenomenal.

The government can't continue to allow federally funded research to be compromised in this manner. More stringent rules urgently need to be implemented.

The Times revealed that the federal disclosure policies that currently exist have been subject to excessively creative interpretation by the top brass at the NIH.

Although federal law requires all federal employees earning more than $102,168 a year to file detailed financial disclosure statements, only 6 percent of the 2,259 employees who earned that much do so, the newspaper found.

Using a legal opinion handed down by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics in 1998, the policy has been interpreted to mean that the threshold for public disclosure is not the actual salary but the low end of the pay scale an employee falls under.

It is no wonder many of the high-salaried NIH employees have been moved around on the pay plan and the number of employees filing disclosure statements dropped 64 percent from 1997 to 2002.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that U.S. Reps. James C. Greenwood, R-Pa., and W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., are demanding full disclosure from the NIH on federal employees within their agency who are working for drug companies.

That information needs to be made public.

In addition to demanding full public disclosure, Congress should take legislative steps to close the loopholes that allow this activity.

The health of the American public is at stake, and federally funded research should not be compromised.