Issue Date: January 28, 2008
Policing Conflicts of Interest
THE NATIONAL INSTITUTES of Health must do more to make sure financial conflicts of interest of its extramural investigators are reported and addressed, according to a report by the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of the Inspector General (IG). The report's findings come after NIH spent the past several years cleaning up its conflict-of-interest policies for intramural scientists.
At issue is how the agency documents and follows up on financial conflicts of interest within grantee institutions. The IG report finds that NIH lacks an accurate, centralized account of conflict-of-interest reports and that its institutes rely on the good faith of the grantee institutions to make sure they comply with federal guidelines governing such situations. In addition, the IG analysis finds that conflict reports submitted to NIH lack details necessary for the agency to follow up.
"It is imperative that the funds provided to grantee institutions be used appropriately and that the research conducted using these funds not be biased because of any conflicting financial interests of investigators," the report says. And although it is ultimately the responsibility of grantee institutions to comply with federal conflict regulations, "NIH, as an oversight body, should take a more active role in overseeing financial conflicts of interest."
For the most part, NIH concurs with the IG report's findings and has outlined action to bolster its efforts in this area. For example, the agency says it will develop a reporting tool to help grantee institutions inform NIH of conflicts, and it will set up a new Web-based financial conflict-of-interest reporting system for agency staff by March 1.
NIH, however, disagrees that more detail is needed. "We believe that it is vital to maintain objectivity in research; however, responsibilities for identifying and managing financial conflicts of interest must remain with grantee institutions," the agency wrote in a letter to the IG office.
Congress is also studying the HHS IG report. And although no hearings are scheduled in either house, members are keeping a close eye on NIH conflict-of-interest issues.
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