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Report: Review of NIH conflicts inadequate

/ Source: The Associated Press

An internal investigation has identified lapses in the way the National Institutes of Health monitors outside work by its scientists, including several cases in which employees took outside jobs before getting permission.

“We found that employees submitted limited information regarding their outside activities,” said the report, which was released Friday by the inspector general for the Health and Human Services Department. “We also found several problems in the review process itself.”

The NIH has come under fire from lawmakers and interest groups because of conflict-of-interest concerns about whether research findings were affected by the scientists’ outside consulting work.

The agency has in recent months enacted rules that would restrict outside work activities and investments. For example, employees can no longer work for pharmaceutical companies. The rules also required employees to sell their stock in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, although that requirement has been delayed.

A NIH spokesman stressed that the inspector general’s report was based on activities prior to the new ethics rules that Director Elias Zerhouni announced in February.

“Keep in mind that this is a snapshot of activity that took place two to four years ago,” said NIH spokesman John Burklow. “A lot has changed since then, so if you reviewed reports filed today, you would get a very different picture. The regulations issued in February ban or restrict many of the activities called into question in this report.”

The NIH has 27 institutes and centers, each with its own ethics staff. The inspector general said that when employees seek to participate in outside work activities, they submit a request form and documents that are supposed to detail the nature of their proposed work.

Between 2001 and 2003, about 40 percent of the 174 senior-level employees at NIH received approval for outside work. Often, an employee submitted multiple requests.

When the inspector general’s office reviewed the requests, investigators found:

  • 22 percent of the outside activities were not disclosed as required.
  • 28 percent of the requests were approved after the scheduled start dates.
  • Six of 27 institutes did not follow up on ongoing outside work activities to determine whether the nature and time commitment associated with those duties had changed.
  • Position descriptions that employees provided were too general to demonstrate that employees’ official duties would not overlap with proposed outside work.