NIH to Examine Ethics Policies
Recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has come under scrutiny for how the agency manages its ethics program. Specifically, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce questioned how NIH interprets federal regulations that permit federal employees to participate in outside activities and receive compensation and the statutes that define what a conflict of interest is. In response to these concerns, NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni has developed a strategy - reviewed and approved by institutes' deputy ethics coordinators - that calls for the review of outside activities dating back five years. Dr. Zerhouni has stated that "all employees at NIH have the obligation to disclose these arrangements. To the best of our knowledge, they have done so." NIH's plan also calls for the establishment of a new NIH ethics advisory committee, the appointment of a blue-ribbon panel to examine NIH ethics policies and practices, and a review of financial disclosure requirements for NIH personnel. As a component of NIH, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) recognizes the importance of having a strong ethics program and looks to benefit from NIH's efforts.
The National Cancer Act of 1971 set out to assist NCI in becoming more effective in the fight against cancer. In establishing the National Cancer Program, the National Cancer Act instructed NCI to "encourage and coordinate cancer research by industrial concerns" and to "establish or support the large-scale production or distribution of specialized biological materials and other therapeutic substances." Over the past three decades, this authorizing language has allowed NCI to collaborate with private industry, jump-start research initiatives, develop innovative therapies, and fill gaps in research that industry has not pursued. Likewise, Dr. Zerhouni has stated that "collaborations between public and private scientists and institutions are essential to translating our discoveries into effective treatments and in attracting and retaining outstanding scientists to government service."
"Without question, the ability to collaborate with private industry and develop new therapies is the source of countless advances in biomedical research and has improved the quality of health care available today," said Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, NCI director. "NCI must maintain the highest ethical standards in its collaborations with private industry so the public's trust is never misplaced."
NCI has always valued the public trust bestowed upon the institute and has continually sought to protect it through the institute's ethics program. NCI has a long-standing comprehensive ethics program in place that strictly adheres to the federal regulations and statutes that set the standard for ethical conduct in government. All Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), sponsored travel, and outside activities, along with confidential and public financial disclosure reports, are reviewed by NCI's Ethics Office. CRADAs are reviewed to ensure fair access and that no conflict of interest exists for NCI employees involved with the project. Outside activities, such as consultancies, are scrutinized by the Ethics Office to identify real and apparent conflicts of interest and for ways in which the activity could impact the employee's official duties and workload with NCI. All identified real or apparent conflicts of interest are addressed by the institute on a case by case basis. Additionally, official duty activities with outside organizations are examined to ensure consistency with the NCI mission as well as all laws and regulations. These efforts are only one part of how the NCI ethics program works to protect the public trust.
NIH has an ethics training and outreach program. New employees are required to complete training on the rules of ethics for public service and are instructed on how to contact the NIH Ethics Office when questions arise; the NCI Ethics office serves as the primary resource for NCI. As part of an ongoing review of all approved outside activities, the NCI Ethics Office works to keep division directors informed of their employees' related activities.
NCI will work with the rest of the NIH to uphold the highest standards for patient safety, ethical practices, and scientific excellence.