Ethics officials at the National Institutes of Health often approved senior scientists' requests to moonlight for drug companies and other outside organizations without gathering adequate documentation to help judge whether the arrangements posed conflicts of interest, federal inspectors have found.
In 81 percent of the recent outside arrangements reviewed by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, ethics officials were found to have approved the deals on the basis of "limited" information. This and other findings are included in a report by the inspector general that was made public yesterday.
"In no instance was the documentation we reviewed adequate for us to make a definitive determination regarding whether an activity was appropriate," the report said. "Inadequate documentation for outside activities can, intentionally or unintentionally, hide potential violations."
The report found that information submitted by the scientists to NIH ethics officials "included insufficient detail regarding the nature of the outside activities, the nature of employees' official job duties, the differences between the outside activities and their official job duties, the outside organizations, and any NIH funding or partnerships with the outside organizations."
The advance descriptions of the outside positions to be entered into by NIH scientists "were too general to demonstrate that employees' official duties would not overlap," the report said.
The inspector general's reviewers "could not determine the appropriateness of eight activities, and they also determined that two of the activities appeared to violate regulations."
The report also said "it is quite possible that, due to the approach taken in this review, we have underestimated the number of activities that should not have been approved."
The review marks another condemnation of NIH's recent policies governing moonlighting by agency scientists. In July 2004, the chief of the Office of Government Ethics concluded that NIH was beset with a "permissive culture" toward conflicts of interest.
NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni announced broad restrictions in February, citing payments by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies of millions of dollars in consulting fees and stock to NIH scientists.
Zerhouni agreed to prohibit NIH employees from accepting any further payments from such companies.
A group of NIH scientists is resisting the tougher ethics rules, which include a provision that would force employees to divest their stock in biomedical companies. The scientists have called for Zerhouni to relax the ban on consulting for drug companies and to rescind the stock-divestiture provision, which has yet to be implemented.