Angered by recent revelations that some high-level scientists at the National Institutes of Health are enjoying lucrative consulting arrangements with drug and biotech companies -- and unsatisfied with a blue-ribbon panel's recommendations for rectifying the problem -- members of a House subcommittee yesterday told NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni they were losing patience with him and his superiors at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The lawmakers warned they might take action if more comprehensive reforms are not instituted soon.
"It is clear from the cases we have reviewed that some NIH scientists are either very close to the line or have crossed the line" of ethical conduct, Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said at a hearing unusual for its level of open hostility toward some of the government's most prestigious -- and best-paid -- scientists. "If we are serious about upholding the highest ethical standards at the NIH, then NIH scientists should not even be close to the line."
Greenwood was especially critical of the legal staff at HHS, whose "delays and obstinacy," he said, had slowed the subcommittee's efforts to determine whether NIH scientists are engaged in outside activities that might conflict with their government responsibilities. He and others noted with evident frustration that HHS declined to have the department's general counsel testify at a follow-up hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
"This investigation has been slow-rolled and stonewalled," Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) fumed in a statement. Dingell led perhaps the most memorable standoff between Congress and the scientific establishment in the late 1980s -- a fiery investigation into allegations of scientific misconduct that focused on Nobel laureate David Baltimore, who is now president of the California Institute of Technology.
Yesterday's hearing had Zerhouni and the two co-chairs of his blue-ribbon panel facing four hours of often withering criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. Even some lawmakers not on the subcommittee showed up for the fray, including Health Committee Chairman Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.).
"We have found NIH to be less than cooperative, and that's going to change," Barton said. "They can cooperate cooperatively, or we will make them cooperate coercively."
At issue are long-standing policies, some of them government-wide and others specific to NIH, that allow scientists -- with agency approval but in some cases without public disclosure -- to earn outside income from drug, biotech and other companies.
Some top-tier researchers have received payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars and, in some cases, valuable stock or options. No scientist stands accused of breaking any rules, but the largest sums have raised concerns about those scientists' attention to their government jobs and the possibility that their outside compensation might influence decisions they make at NIH.
Zerhouni noted that he had already implemented changes to ban outside consulting by high-ranking NIH scientists who are central to grant making decisions. He also has increased by about 100 the number of scientists subject to financial disclosure rules and he has asked the Office of Government Ethics to authorize him to demand fuller disclosure from an even wider group of about 500 scientists.
He defended the blue-ribbon panel's recommendations, which include forbidding certain kinds of remuneration (such as company stock, which can make scientists more beholden to a company's long-term interests) and limiting the amount of outside income and the number of hours spent on outside work.
"We should be more transparent, more vigilant about oversight, and we need to tighten the rules," Zerhouni testified. "But it would be a mistake to ban all compensated activities with outside organizations. Such an action would be bad for science, unfair to employees, and ultimately hinder our efforts to improve the nation's health."
He did not find a sympathetic audience.
Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) criticized Zerhouni's conflict-of-interest panel, which was co-chaired by Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Norman R. Augustine, executive chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp., referring to it as a "so-called blue-ribbon committee" whose recommendations would "excuse the inexcusable."
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) wondered aloud how, in this era of interlinking corporate relationships, any federal scientist could ever be certain that the company he or she was receiving payments from had no financial stake in a company that might have a proposal before the scientist's institute or lab.
Greenwood announced that, given HHS's apparent unwillingness to fully tally the extent of outside consulting at NIH, he would ask the nation's pharmaceutical and biotech companies to volunteer information about their dealings with NIH researchers -- a process already begun in February by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), to little avail so far.
Greenwood outlined the many ways in which members of Congress in recent decades have limited their own access to outside income and gifts. "If this kind of reform was good enough for Congress, why isn't it good enough for the National Institutes of Health?" he asked.
Greenwood is one of few House members to voluntarily refuse contributions from political action committees. But contributions from individuals employed by pharmaceutical and health product companies have kept him among the top 20 recipients of donations related to health care companies for three of the last four election cycles, according to the most recent data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks political money.
Over all, pharmaceutical and health companies contributed nearly $30 million to political campaigns in the 2002 election cycle, the group reports.
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.