Philosophy of AR > Animal Testing - Index > Anti-Vivisection Index

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 Human Services.

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 a postdoc.

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.

Crystal Miller-Spiegel
Senior Policy Analyst
American Anti-Vivisection Society
801 Old York Road, #204
Jenkintown, PA 19046
phone 215.887.0816
fax 215.887.2088