The National Institutes of Health says 44 scientists, some former employees among them, violated ethics rules while consulting for drug companies.
The findings appeared in a letter sent by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni last week to the Committee on Energy and Commerce to update it on the NIH's internal review of agency employees involved in outside consulting activities. A total of 103 individuals are under investigation.
Because the probe is ongoing, Zerhouni had asked the committee to keep his letter confidential. But committee leaders--U.S. Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and John Dingell (D-Mich.)--said in a statement yesterday they were releasing it "due to the compelling public interest."
The committee itself has been conducting an investigation of conflicts of interest by government researchers for almost two years. Last year it identified 81 NIH scientists hired by drug companies between 1999 and 2004 whose consulting agreements were not listed in NIH information provided to the committee. The value of those agreements ranged from several hundred dollars to half a million in one case.
The NIH subsequently launched its probe. Of the 81 scientists identified by the committee, the NIH says 44 violated conflict of interest rules and 37 did not. Nine of the violators have been referred to the HHS Office of Inspector General for possible criminal charges. An additional 22 are still under review.
"We discovered cases of employees who consulted with research entities without seeking prior approval, consulted in areas that appeared to conflict with their official duties, or consulted in situations where the main benefit was the ability of the employer to invoke the name of NIH as an affiliation," Zerhouni wrote in his letter.
Zerhouni halted consulting between NIH employees and the pharma and biotech industries in February. He also prohibited top scientists from owning shares in such companies, accepting gifts worth more than $200 and accepting many research prizes.
Reps. Barton and Dingell called on Zerhouni to finalize the rules, which are considered interim final regulations. The HHS and the Office of Government Ethics are considering mandating further regulations, including a stock ownership restriction for thousands of NIH employees.
While it is within his job description to root out conflicts of interest among his employees, Zerhouni also cites the desire to find a "balance between the need for collaboration and our ability to maintain public trust in the performance of our mission."