House subcommittee probes consulting fees

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 (NIH) have been reluctant 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 recent hearing.

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. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), 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.

According to figures released in May, 117 NIH scientists (out of 17,000 NIH employees) are under consulting contracts with private firms.