AN OUTCRY arose at the National Institutes of Health last year when new ethics rules were put in place to ensure that government research was not compromised by senior scientists who accepted consulting payments from biomedical companies.
A group of those scientists then formed a committee to try to get the rules reversed. Although they failed, their motivation was clear. At least one-third of them had lucrative consulting arrangements, according to the Los Angeles Times, which first exposed the seamy practice.
Among the dissident researchers with a special deal was William E. Paul, chief of the immunology laboratory at NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Records perused by the Times showed that from 2000 to 2004 Dr. Paul accepted $380,000 in fees from Suntory Pharmaceuticals Research Lab and Novartis AG, plus $40,000 in travel expenses from Novartis.
Another committee member, Howard A. Young, a section chief in the National Cancer Institute's experimental immunology laboratory, received 500,000 options on stock of Advanced Viral Research Corp. for his consulting work. Mr. Young said he "did not expect" to exercise the options but has resigned from Advanced Viral's advisory board.
The list goes on but the point is simple. Research conducted by government scientists must not be tainted by conflicts of interest.
Many NIH personnel objected to the new rules on the grounds that their work wasn't compromised by the fees, and that may well be the case. But conflicts do damage to the integrity of an institution whether they are real or perceived, and it is imperative not to invite suspicion where crucial scientific research is involved.
Many NIH discoveries are translated into drugs and other products that make their way to the marketplace. The public must be able to depend on their scientific underpinnings.
Among the cases revealed by the Times was that of a laboratory chief at the National Cancer Institute who worked with a Maryland company to develop a detection test for ovarian cancer while accepting $70,000 in fees from a competing company. The inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services is investigating.
NIH officials deserve commendation for sticking with the new ethics rules in the face of opposition that now seems hollow. As we said previously, government-funded research must be above reproach.