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Project on Government Oversight

NIH's Plan for Public Disclosure Is Getting Help from Senator Grassley

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August 5, 2011

One of the best of our government agencies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is getting some well-deserved help from Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

In recent years, Senator Grassley exposed several academic physicians for taking large amounts of money from companies with a direct financial interest in their research, some of it funded by the NIH. The list reads like a who’s who in academic research:

  • Dr. Charlie Nemeroff, former Chair of the Psychiatry Department at Emory University, who failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from GlaxoSmithKline while researching that same company’s drugs with an NIH grant.  Dr. Nemeroff was bounced from Emory and has now taken over the Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Miami.
  • Dr. Alan Schatzberg, former Chair of the Psychiatry Department at Stanford University received an NIH grant to study a drug while partially owning a company that was seeking FDA approval of said drug. An NIH oversight group recommended that Stanford’s clinical trial on mifepristone be “terminated immediately and permanently.”  The recommendation was made because of concerns over conflicts of interest, patient safety and other issues.
  • Dr. Joseph Biederman and two other researchers at Harvard University failed to report almost a million dollars each in outside income while heading up several NIH grants. Harvard later disciplined the three physicians.

A government requirement for public disclosure would obviously make these secret payments more difficult–and that’s just what the NIH is trying to do. A new regulation proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services would deal with investigators’ financial arrangements by requiring these arrangements to be disclosed on a publicly accessible website if those arrangements created a conflict of interest.

Good step by the NIH!

But, as reported by Meredith Wadman of the journal Nature, the NIH’s new regulation is being blocked by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), discrediting the Obama administration’s boast about a new era of transparency in the federal government.

Senator Grassley wrote yesterday to Jacob Lew, the OMB director, that he was concerned by this story:

I am troubled that taxpayers cannot learn about the outside income of the researchers whom the taxpayers are funding, and this flies in the face of President Obama’s call for more transparency in the government. The public’s business should be public.... I urge OMB to follow through and approve a rule that includes a publicly available website.

In his letter, Senator Grassley requested all records related to the OMB’s weakening of the proposed conflict-of-interest rule. He also asked to see all calendar meetings for Administrator Cass Sunstein, OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, from May 1, 2010, to the present.

“Transparency is a backstop against research that's compromised by doctors' self-interest, to the detriment of consumers,” Grassley said in a statement.

In a letter three weeks ago, POGO pressed OMB Director Lew to drop his agency’s resistance to the proposed new requirement for public disclosure. POGO is meeting in a few days with some of those in OMB who are working on this rule.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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