NIH’s Collins to lawmakers: Agency is addressing conflict of interest concerns

The National Institutes of Health is actively working to ensure it's vetting projects funded by private donations more thoroughly in the wake of several controversial studies.

Addressing the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Thursday, NIH's Director Francis Collins, M.D., acknowledged the potential conflict of interest and ethics concerns that can arise when NIH is setting its research priorities.

The problem came into stark focus earlier this year when the agency canceled a study on the potential benefits of moderate alcohol consumption on cardiovascular health, which was funded in part by the beverage industry. In April, NIH officials dropped a plan to accept $200 million from the drug industry toward research on pain and addiction treatment. 

Officials from the agency have said they will present a plan to ensure better delineate the process for future private-sector collaboration to an advisory committee in December.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said that corporate or private funding for NIH should be eliminated completely, and its funding should completely come from public, taxpayer dollars. She said she was “happy to write the bill” immediately that would end such donations. 

Collins said that NIH can still conduct valuable research that’s funded by private donations. Some of these private-public research partnerships have furthered science more quickly, he said, as they can design studies together in a way that draws on both side’s expertise and experience. “We have to be thoughtful” about designing these studies, though, he said. 

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“What we need to be careful about, and which has I think caused us to stub our toe here a couple of times, is a circumstance where the source of the funds has a vested interest in a particular outcome of the study,” Collins said. 

In general, Collins said, setting research priorities poses a challenge at NIH. Collins said that the agency at present is focused on supporting and recruiting younger scientists, addressing the opioid epidemic and promoting genomics and precision medicine, among a slew of other priorities, which are supported in part by a $3 billion increase in funding to NIH approved by Congress earlier this year.  

However, the lawmakers weren't convinced NIH is looking at the most crucial issues. 

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who is also a physician, noted that the disease burden for obesity is $190 billion while spending on research is at $965 million. The discrepancy is a problem, Cassidy, M.D., said, as obesity is not only costly on its own but linked to other chronic diseases like diabetes. 

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Collins said that NIH focuses its research funding opportunities on areas with the greatest scientific opportunity, such as curing diseases like HIV/AIDS, and the difference may to some degree boil down to a “bookkeeping issue,” as some programs for diabetes and other related diseases would also be considered research on obesity more broadly. 

But setting goals and priorities is a complicated issue that Collins admitted can be tough for him and his team. 

“I think this is something we worry about every day: ‘Are we setting our priorities properly?’” Collins said.