Senator Accuses NIH of Evading Ethics Rules

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is dealing with yet another headache over financial conflicts of interest in research. Today, a member of Congress charged that NIH is trying to get around its own ban on staff consulting for industry by hiring an academic scientist who works with industry as an NIH consultant. NIH, however, says the researcher was in a temporary position at NIH and no rules were broken.

Over the past few months, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) has been looking into whether NIH-funded researchers at over 20 universities properly reported income they received from drug companies. Now in a new wrinkle, Grassley is focusing on an academic scientist who recently moved to NIH: Marvin Konstam, the former chief of cardiology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston who also serves as medical director for a device company, Orqis Medical in Lake Forest, California. In January, Konstam became a senior advisor to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) director Elizabeth Nabel.

In a letter to NIH today, Grassley notes that Konstam's latest papers and a recent Orqis press release give his affiliation as Tufts. Yet he has been quoted in a news article, Grassley’s letter says, as NHLBI senior advisor. "Obviously anyone would be confused about who is Dr. Konstam's employer," Grassley writes. He adds: "I'm concerned that the NIH may be avoiding intramural conflict of interest policies by hiring experts as contractors instead of as full time employees." NIH employees are banned from paid industry consulting. According to the agency’s employee manual, people who work at NIH but are not federal employees--guest researchers, for example--are not covered by its strict ethics rules. However, the manual says that "any involvement with an outside organization must be discussed first with the supervisor or other individual to whom they report, to ensure that there are no conflicts with the work being performed at NIH."

NIH spokesperson John Burklow says that NIH was aware of Konstam’s company ties; "it doesn't look like anything is out of order," he says. The cardiologist is a Tufts employee who came to NIH through a federal program that allows academic researchers to take leave from their institution and spend up to 2 years at a federal agency, Burklow says. Konstam helped NHLBI develop a strategic plan for cardiovascular disease research; he was not involved in awarding grants or conducting research at NIH. But Konstam's 1-year stint ends in December, and he will be returning to a different position at Tufts. This plan "was already in the works," Burklow says. Tufts said in a statement that Konstam "recently accepted" a position as Chief Physician Executive of the medical center's Cardiovascular Center. An assistant in Konstam’s office said that he has been spending one day a month at the university and the rest of the time at NIH.