Grassley Questions NIH Travel on Sponsors' Dime

27 October 2010 6:30 pm

Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA) is asking more questions about ethics policies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In one of his last actions as ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, Grassley is concerned about intramural researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) who take a dozen or more trips a year for which their expenses are paid by outside groups. NIH staff defend the trips, often to other countries, as part of their duty to interact with the international science community.

Grassley's past investigations have led NIH to tighten financial conflict-of-interest reporting by NIH grantees. Turning to in-house researchers, he details his concerns in a 22 October letter to NCI Director Harold Varmus and NIH Director Francis Collins. The letter questions trips taken by 16 NCI intramural investigators in 2008 and 2009, "almost exclusively" to destinations such as China, Brazil, and Europe. Costs often exceeded $10,000, the letter says. Many of the 16 scientists on the list took at least 10 trips a year, led by Louis Staudt (33 trips), Chand Khanna (31), and Patricia Steeg (29).

Grassley also has raised questions about the reassignment earlier this year of an NCI ethics official after she was admonished by an NCI official for questioning the relevance and destination of these sponsored trips. The possibility that she was transferred for trying to comply with federal policy on such travel is "deeply troubling," Grassley writes.

NIH spokesperson John Burklow says that most of the questioned trips are sponsored by universities or societies and that the invitations go through four levels of review at NCI. The interactions during these trips are "an important way to advance science," Burklow says. NIH is now scrambling to meet Grassley's 5 November deadline for documenting these and government-paid trips by the 16 investigators, as well as the total cost of NCI staff travel from 2008 to 2010.

Speaking on background with ScienceInsider, two intramural scientists defended such sponsored trips. Senior scientists are often invited to speak at meetings because of their international reputations, an NCI scientist noted. "We have an obligation to talk about our work," said this scientist, who doesn't travel much himself. (In general, plenary speakers at a scientific meeting are compensated for travel expenses.) He called "baloney" the notion that the trips are junkets, adding: "I would be very surprised if anyone did anything outside the rules." Reviewing grants for a foundation is another reason for sponsored travel.

An NIH researcher might also accept an invitation to speak at a university—say, in China—then tack on other meetings to meet with collaborators and potential postdocs. The first trip to Asia might be fun, but subsequent travel becomes "torture," according to a second NIH intramural scientist, who noted that federal rules require federal employees to fly in coach unless the flight is over 14 hours. The rules also forbid NIH staff from taking any personal time during sponsored travel, meaning a person could land jet lagged in Paris, give a talk, and head home 24 hours later.

The scrutiny from Grassley follows a crackdown on intramural interactions with industry and strict rules on international travel put in place in the early 2000s after activists booed former Health and Human Services Director Tommy Thompson during an AIDS meeting in Barcelona, Spain. "This stuff in dribs and drabs is making people so unenthusiastic about working here," the second researcher says.