By PAUL THACKER and NED FEDER
After almost four years of horrible press over medical research tainted by conflicts of interest, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was presented with a great opportunity to make fundamental changes to their rules, increase transparency, and strengthen public trust in taxpayer-funded research.
Instead, they stepped up to the plate...assumed a power stance...and struck out.
The NIH released its final rule today, and gone are the provisions that would’ve injected some much-needed transparency into taxpayer funded research.
Here’s how they could’ve written the rule to hit a home run:
Before disbursing federal funds to an academic researcher, the university must disclose that researcher’s outside income and a plan to manage the researcher’s conflicts of interest. Both the outside income and the management plan will be posted on the NIH RePORTER website, which details other information about the grant.
It’s just that simple and cheap. Because the NIH RePORTER website already exists.
Instead of being able to access the information easily online, taxpayers will have to write to universities and ask them about the professor’s conflicts of interest. Imagine if you had to write to your politician to ask who he takes money from, instead of viewing it on publicly available websites.
Are America’s professors scared to meet the ethical standards of elected politicians?
Furthermore, the universities’ conflict of interest management plans will remain hidden. You're not allowed to see them. Why? It doesn’t make any sense.
Finally, there are no changes to the penalties, one NIH official said in today’s phone briefing, because the previous rules had “strong enforcement.” Please.
The only reason NIH was forced to make these changes is because Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) dogged them for years about lax enforcement, with embarrassing stories in the media about Drs. Charles Nemeroff, Alan Schatzberg, and Joseph Biederman, among others.
When a United States Senator has to put on his work boots and do an agency’s job, that doesn’t meet taxpayer expectations.
We should have gotten something to be proud of. We should have expected this administration to swing for the fences—especially given its early promises of transparency.
Paul Thacker is a POGO Investigator. Ned Feder is POGO's Staff Scientist.
Image via Boston Public Library.