Monday, September 11, 2006

Another Reason for Public Disclosure by CIRM Grant Reviewers

The California stem cell agency says that the scientists who make "recommendations" regarding who receives hundreds of millions of dollars in grants do not need to disclose publicly their financial interests.

On Sunday, however, the Los Angeles Times carried a piece that demonstrates again why public disclosure is needed.

Reporter David Willman wrote.:

"A senior researcher at the National Institutes of Health engaged in 'serious misconduct' by entering into dozens of unauthorized private arrangements with drug companies and failing to report annually the outside income, totaling more than $100,000, a confidential internal review by the agency has found.

"Officials at the NIH concluded late last year that the actions of Dr. Thomas J. Walsh, who has helped lead major clinical trials involving cancer patients, might result in dismissal from federal government service. No disciplinary action has been taken.

"The internal review, conducted by lawyers and other ethics specialists within the office of the NIH director, found that from 1999 to 2004, Walsh received fees totaling $100,970 from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. He accepted fees from 25 companies and has led government-sponsored research involving some of those companies' drugs."

In this case Walsh allegedly failed to disclose to NIH. One has to ask the question: Would public disclosure have prevented the alleged misconduct? That is impossible to tell, but it would have raised the importance of the issue to a higher level and added a deterrent component. It would have also led to critical oversight from various public watchdog groups that love to forage in public documents. With public disclosure presumably it would have taken less than five years for the alleged misdeeds to surface. (Five years, by the way, is about 60 percent of CIRM's remaining life.)

The Walsh story is not isolated. Conflicts of interests are widely reported in medical research and are probably impossible to avoid. All the more reason to bring the financial interests at play out into the sunshine.

As for the use of quotation marks around the word recommendation in the first paragraph of this item, the reviewers do make recommendations on the grants but those are virtually de facto decisions, a position that we acknowledge CIRM disagrees with.

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