WASHINGTON - Drug and biotech companies that have paid government scientists for consulting services soon will receive a request from a House subcommittee to voluntarily release financial details of such agreements.
Since scientists at the National Institutes of Health apparently are too embarrassed to disclose details of their financial contracts with the private industry, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will go directly to the industry for the information, Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.), subcommittee chairman, said during a hearing Wednesday.
Under current policies established in 1995 by former NIH Director Harold Varmus, there is no limit on the amount of compensation or the number of hours that NIH scientists can be paid for outside consulting with drug or biotechnology companies. Furthermore, the government does not require scientists to disclose what they are paid. (Other government departments operate under similar rules. The subcommittee will investigate those departments, as well.)
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are looking to tighten those rules for the sake of the NIH's integrity. Indeed, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the American public needs to be assured that NIH research grants are awarded based on merit and not because a scientist received a monetary award.
Others on the subcommittee were not so kind. Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) said, "It appears the NIH may have fallen victim to a disease called greed."
Potential conflicts of interest between the NIH and the industry took the spotlight in December following a Los Angeles Times article in its Dec. 7, 2003, issue detailing the decade-long practice of high-level NIH scientists receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for consulting, said Greenwood.
According to figures released Wednesday, 117 NIH scientists (out of 17,000 NIH employees) are under consulting contracts with private firms.
NIH Director Elias Zerhouni responded to conflict-of-interest charges by setting up an ethics advisory committee to provide independent peer review of activities involving outside organizations.
Zerhouni, along with Bruce Alberts and Norman Augustine, sat before the committee to float new ideas about solving the problems. Alberts and Augustine work for the National Academy of Sciences in Washington and sit on a blue ribbon panel organized by Zerhouni to review government rules and to find some way of allowing scientists to receive fees without compromising the entire organization.
Zerhouni said interaction between the industry and academia is important to the advancement of science.
Under a proposed set of guidelines offered by the three, senior-level NIH scientists, management and extramural employees who are responsible for program funding decisions and recommendations would be prohibited from receiving consulting fees.
Scientists and researchers allowed to consult would be limited to a fee amount equal to 50 percent of the employee's annual salary, with no one source accounting for more than 25 percent of an annual salary.
Also going forward, NIH scientists would be prohibited from accepting stock or other forms of equity ownership in the companies they are consulting with.
Zerhouni also said he'll ask all NIH employees to voluntarily disclose relevant relationships with outside organizations and financial holdings in their work products, such as publications, speeches and invention disclosures. "And I will seek changes to regulations to make such disclosures a requirement," he said.
Zerhouni's efforts were not enough to please some members of the subcommittee.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) asked why the scientists have to be paid when they serve as consultants, and if they are paid, why does it have to be so much money?
DeGette presented research featuring consulting fees collected by some of the government's top scientists.
For example, Ronald Germain, deputy chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, consults with a number of companies. In recent years he has received $70,000 from Hybridon Inc., of Cambridge, Mass.; $131,250 from Cell Genesys Inc., of South San Francisco; and $3,000 from Schroder Ventures Life Sciences, of Boston.
Since 1995, Germain has earned about $430,535, plus stock options, for his services outside his NIH office, according to DeGette's figures.
When asked whether he had a problem with Germain picking up the extra income (not counting the stocks), Zerhouni said no.
"Dr. Germain is a world-class scientist - he's in the Nobel Prize category," Zerhouni said. "There are a lot of people out there who want to talk to him about his knowledge of immunology."
Augustine, Zerhouni and Alberts agreed that prohibiting scientists from accepting consulting fees would cost the NIH its best employees.
Augustine said compensation packages for lower-level NIH scientists are pretty much in line with the industry, but senior-level government scientists are not earning as much as their private-industry peers.