Asked about possible conflicts of interest in Lindsay's grants to study teriparatide, Faye Chen, an NIH official, refused to provide copies of written assurances from Helen Hayes, Lindsay's employer—paperwork required by federal law—that conflicts of interest had been properly dealt with. She insisted that everything was in order. “The NIH is committed to preserving the public's trust that the research supported by the NIH is conducted without bias and with the highest scientific and ethical standards,” she wrote in an e-mail to me. She added, “I can assure you that Dr. Lindsay's institution provided the required certification and assurance prior to receiving the award, and they will be required to provide this certification every year prior to award.” Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request contained no mention of any potential conflict of interest—nothing to indicate that Lindsay was taking money from the manufacturer of the drug being studied. NIH officials would not comment on whether or not they have followed up on the matter.
The NIH's actions should come as no surprise. A few years ago the Department of Health and Human Services's Office of Inspector General got its hands on internal NIH communications that show that management discourages investigations into conflicts of interest among NIH-sponsored researchers. (In the interest of transparency: my wife works for the Office of Inspector General but did not have anything to do with these studies or this article.) For example, one memorandum stated, “We should not follow up for additional details about the nature of the conflict or how it was managed unless there is sufficient programmatic concern to do so”.
This article was originally published with the title Is Drug Research Trustworthy?.