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Project on Government Oversight

POGO Letter To NIH Director: Medical Researchers Should Be Made To Publicly Disclose Possible Conflicts Of Interest

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March 15, 2010

POGO has sent a letter to Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), urging him to implement an idea he recently said he supported: a public database listing any financial arrangements, such as payment for consulting, between NIH grantees and outside organizations. Dr. Collins explained his views on such a database in a September interview with the New England Journal of Medicine

I personally am in favor of the idea that sunshine is the best disinfectant. The idea of having a public database where all investigators disclose what kinds of financial arrangements they have with outside organizations is a good thing.

POGO would like to see such a database included in the NIH's forthcoming update to rules on conflicts of interest.

In the early 2000s, a Los Angeles Times reporter uncovered a series of potential conflicts of interest raising questions about public health decisions at the agency. One example involved an NIH scientist who conducted a clinical trial on an experimental drug to treat kidney inflammation — it was later discovered that in the decade preceding the trial, the company that manufactured the drug had paid the scientist at least $170,000 in consulting fees.

In the aftermath of these damaging revelations, and under pressure from Congress, the NIH barred scientists in its intramural program — the part of the NIH that conducts research within the agency — from making any private financial arrangements with companies that could create a conflict of interest. This reform largely solved the problems that came to light in the early 2000's, but only applied to scientists conducting research within the NIH — the intramural program.  Financial arrangements between health companies and NIH grantees receiving funding through the extramural program (the part of NIH in charge of funding research outside the agency) are still permitted. Furthermore, though grantees must report these arrangements to their own institutions, the reports are confidential and shielded from public view.

The grantees are faculty members at U.S. medical schools that are in lock step with the NIH, marching along without disclosing any potentially conflicting arrangements between their researchers and outside organizations.

As stated in POGO's letter, "the NIH itself bears a direct responsibility — legal and moral — to protect the public by ensuring that financial conflicts of interest do not compromise the medical research of grantees." One of the key steps to fulfilling this responsibility would be implementing a public database where financial arrangements of grantees are out in the open. In the words of Dr. Collins, having this kind of database would be "a good thing."

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