A congressional committee yesterday ripped into National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Elias Zerhouni for allowing his agency's scientists to consult for drug companies. Some lawmakers dismissed plans by Zerhouni to limit consulting and pressed him to release more details of the payments scientists have received.
The hearing by the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations was sparked by a Los Angeles Times report last December that detailed consulting earnings of $300,000 or more since 1995 by some NIH scientists. In response, Zerhouni asked a panel of experts to recommend changes to NIH's policies, which they did last week (ScienceNOW, 6 May). He told the subcommittee that he is moving quickly to implement this advice, including banning top officials from consulting "ASAP" and making financial reports public for 500 high-level employees. He also defended lecture honoraria and other outside activities, such as teaching. "I plead with you to be open-minded about [these activities]. They are important to science," he said.But committee chair James Greenwood (R-PA) dismissed the blue-ribbon panel's report, which he said handled the issues "gently and almost blithely." Another member, Diana DeGette (D-CO), questioned why companies can't receive the wisdom of NIH scientists for free. She also scoffed at the argument by panel co-chair Norman Augustine of Lockheed Martin that top NIH scientists, some of whom earn salaries of $200,000, are underpaid compared to academic colleagues. "I'm clearly underpaid compared to lawyers of my expertise in private practice," DeGette retorted.Committee members grilled Zerhouni about the amounts earned by some NIH staff members, which they displayed in a series of slides. One example was Ronald Germain, who has supplemented his NIH salary with $430,535 plus stock options since 1995. Zerhouni's explanation: Germain is "a world-class immunologist ... basically in the Nobel Prize equivalent category. Many people want to talk to him," Zerhouni said.The panelists seemed unconvinced. Greenwood said he's concluded that "some NIH scientists are either very close to the line or have crossed the line" of conflict of interest. And full Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton (R-TX) said NIH has "been less than cooperative" with forking over data on consulting arrangements and threatened to force the agency's hand. The committee plans to question other witnesses at a hearing next Tuesday.