80: Ethical Conflicts Plague NIH

By Sarah Webb|Monday, January 03, 2005

As chief of geriatric psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health, Trey Sunderland conducted studies of Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases associated with aging. At the same time, he worked as a consultant for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, earning $517,000 in fees, honoraria, and expenses. His associate Karen Putnam picked up another $64,000. Neither told the institute about their outside work—or got approval to do it.

That was one of many iffy situations that came to light in June according to transcripts of a congressional probe into ethics at the National Institutes of Health. The hearings were prompted by a Los Angeles Times investigation that uncovered hundreds of unreported consulting payments to NIH researchers from private industry. “I can’t believe that they weren’t trying to be deceptive,” says Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences. “That’s why I feel very outraged.” Neither Sunderland nor Putnam were available for comment.

In late September the NIH announced—but had not put into effect as of press time—a one-year moratorium on all paid industry consulting while the agency reviews its internal ethics policies. As a government agency that contains research laboratories but also distributes funding to other institutions, the NIH walks a tightrope between maintaining the quality of its in-house research and appearing unbiased in grants to outside researchers and universities. Ending paid industry consulting would simplify the ethical problem but could compromise recruitment of top scientists and the quality of their research. With the proper clearance, bench scientists at the NIH should have the right “to do what every other scientist has the right to do: consult for a science advisory committee or a pharmaceutical company or a biotech company, partly because that’s become part of the culture and partly because it’s very much a two-way exchange,” Alberts says. “The scientists at the NIH would learn a lot from those exchanges, and that would help make the science at the NIH better.”

The controversy points to a serious question: Are scientists receiving the training they need to grapple with ethical situations?

In general, they do not, says Laurel Smith-Doerr, a sociologist at Boston University. Most graduate programs expect students to get ethics training informally. In those courses that exist, she says, ethics training is superficial. Courses often cover legal issues, like how to handle research involving human subjects, rather than examining how funding may influence scientists or how cutting-edge research such as genetic engineering may affect society at large. Many ethics courses are one or two credit hours, less weight than science-based courses.

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