NIH Slammed Again for Lax Oversight of Conflicts of Interest

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

The National Institutes of Health is again being taken to task for doing too little to manage researchers' potential conflicts of interest, such as consulting for drug companies. This time federal investigators say NIH should tighten up rules that now give faculty with NIH funding too much leeway in what they must report.

The criticism comes from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Inspector General (IG), which in 2008 found that NIH wasn't paying enough attention to how its grantee institutions manage conflicts of interest. In a follow-on report dated 18 November, the IG has now examined the information that 41 grantee institutions filed with NIH in 2006 as well as documents kept by the institutions, such as disclosure forms. The most common conflict it found was equity ownership—111 of 165 researchers had equity such as stock in a company, and six had equity valued at more than $100,000.

Another seven faculty members received more than $50,000 in royalty or compensation. Most often institutions "manage" these conflicts by requiring that researchers disclose them in talks and papers, not get rid of them, the IG found.

The report finds "vulnerabilities" in how universities oversee conflicts. For example, 90% of of the 41 institutions let researchers themselves decide whether their financial interests are related to their research, and nearly half did not ask for specific amounts. Nor do they check to verify that researchers are reporting honestly.  

"There is a need for more transparency about and oversight of grantee institutions," the report concludes. The report repeats previous advice that NIH make institutions report more details on how they're managing conflicts. It also lists several steps that NIH should require of institutions, such as asking faculty members to report all possible conflicts, not just those they think are relevant, and collecting specific dollar amounts.

Others have also called on institutions to collect more details on conflicts, including an Institute of Medicine committee earlier this year. And many of the IG's recommendations appear in an HHS notice issued in July about possible changes to the Public Health Service conflicts of interest regulation. NIH expects to issue a proposed regulation in the next few weeks.

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