The institutions that administer grants are supposed to provide another check on conflict of interest, but they do not. Historically, the NIH has not taken responsibility for policing conflicts of interest in the research it funds. In 2007, responding to the Office of Inspector General's complaint that the NIH's handling of financial conflicts of interest was woefully inadequate, Elias Zerhouni, then director of the agency, maintained that it was not the NIH's job to figure out whether its grantees were obeying ethics laws. “We believe it is vital to maintain objectivity in research,” he wrote in a letter to the Office of Inspector General, “however, responsibilities for identifying ... FCOIs [financial conflicts of interest] must remain with grantee institutions.” NIH officials say that current policy on the matter has not changed.
Yet grantee institutions also have a record of failing to address ethical issues involving their researchers. A 2009 report by the Office of Inspector General looked at how organizations that receive NIH grants find potential conflicts of interest. Ninety percent of them left it up to the researcher's discretion to identify any problems. Even institutions that publicly take a hard line against conflicts of interest are often lax in enforcing their policies. In late 2010 ProPublica developed a drug company database and started checking up on Stanford University and several other universities with strong anti-conflict-of-interest policies. They found dozens of faculty members who were taking pharmaceutical money in violation of those institutions' rules.
This article was originally published with the title Is Drug Research Trustworthy?.