Should NIH-Funded Researchers Be Required to Publicly Reveal Conflicts?

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

A government watchdog group is urging the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to require its grantees to publicly disclose money they get for consulting for drug companies. The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) quotes NIH Director Francis Collins supporting that idea in an interview with The New England Journal of Medicine last year:

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.

There's already a proposal (see p. 646) in Congress to make companies report payments to physicians in a public database. But POGO says public disclosure by all NIH-funded researchers themselves should be required in an upcoming revision of federal financial conflict of interest rules. (Researchers now have to report outside payments to their institutions, but the information is usually confidential.) One reason to do so is that the industry database wouldn't cover researchers who don't have a medical degree, the POGO letter notes. It also argues that: "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."

Collins told ScienceInsider that "I think disclosure is the bottom line" and conflicts information should be easily accessible, but that "the exact mechanism" is "debatable." He added that the proposed regulation "certainly will address" public disclosure. Collins could not say when the draft rule will be released, noting only that it's in review at the Department of Health and Human Services and White House Office of Management and Budget.