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29 September 2005
Use of NIH funds placed under a spotlight
Emma Marris, Washington DC
Congressman questions whether grants are being wisely.
Congressman Joe Barton wants to know whether biomedical researchers funded
by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) are spending their grants
haphazardly - overpaying research assistants, for example, or winning funds
for phantom projects that they then use to do other research.
Barton, a Republican representative for Texas, heads the committee in the
House of Representatives that oversees the NIH. After the committee's
investigation of conflicts of interest inside the agency, revised ethics
rules made their debut last month. Now the focus is on scientists outside
the agency, at research hospitals and universities, who work with NIH funds.
After reading a 16 August article in the Wall Street Journal about a
whistle-blower at Cornell University's medical school in New York, and after
receiving direct complaints, Barton's office sent two letters to Daniel
Levinson, the inspector-general at the NIH's parent department, Health and
One letter asks for a broad investigation into large grants to
clinical-research centres, which can be worth many millions of dollars and
cover many activities. The second asks for an investigation into whether NIH
grant monies are being used to pay graduate research assistants unreasonably
high salaries. This suspicion is based on complaints the committee received
saying that some graduate assistants at the University of California, Davis,
receive salaries and tuition waivers that amount to six times the salary of
Chris Harrington, director of communications in the University of
California's federal-relations office, says he believes that the university
complies with federal law.
And Norka Ruiz Bravo, deputy director for extramural research at the NIH,
says she would be happy to cooperate with an investigation, but is not
convinced there is a problem. "We're careful stewards of taxpayer funds. I
would be surprised if there is widespread misuse of them," she said.
"You have to remember that these are grants, not contracts," she adds.
"There is a certain amount of discretion left to the investigator on how to
approach a scientific problem."
It remains to be seen whether Barton will agree. He has called for the
investigation as his committee considers a draft of a sweeping
reauthorization bill, which would affect the NIH's basic organization.
Senior Policy Analyst
American Anti-Vivisection Society
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Jenkintown, PA 19046