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SCIENTIFIC CONFLICT OF INTEREST HEARINGS BEFORE REP. WEISS (D-N.Y.)

Executive Summary

SCIENTIFIC CONFLICT OF INTEREST HEARINGS BEFORE REP. WEISS (D-N.Y.) can be expected in the summer, according to comments by a key staff member of the House Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations. Diane Zuckerman, the lead staffer for a conflict of interest hearing last fall, told a May 4 meeting in Washington that the House subcommittee expects "to have another hearing in the next couple of months." In September, the Weiss subcommittee examined an academic dispute at the University of Pittsburgh over the validity of competing analyses of data from amoxicillin otitis media trials ("The Pink Sheet" Oct. 10, p. 17). "It is not yet clear," Zuckerman said, "what will be the focus" of the upcoming followup hearing. However, she added that "it will probably be the general issue of the rights and responsibilities of people who get federal grants." One apparent subcommittee interest is single-company sponsorship of researchers on the university lecture circuit. Zuckerman noted that one of the issues that she has been investigating recently is academic honoraria. "What [has] really surprised me," Zuckerman said, "is the number of times . . . that a person's trip to give grand rounds at another medical school was sponsored by a drug company -- where a university researcher from one university is teaching a course at another university." The Hill staffer commented that she has been looking carefully at sponsorship of grand rounds by one lecturer at several universities. "What I have been looking at," Zuckerman said, "was a situation where [a clinician] was giving grand rounds, and it was always paid for by the same drug companies that pay for everything else he does. So it is not money tied to the university where he is giving the grand rounds; it is money that is following him around wherever he goes." The grand rounds custom is "supposed to be an academic setting and is not supposed to have anything to do with a drug company," Zuckerman contended. She noted that she has given ground rounds and "was never paid by a drug company." Zuckerman asked: "Is that really the proper role for drug companies to be paying a university faculty member to give a talk at another university." Zuckerman acknowledged that the issue of scientific conflict of interest is very complicated. She said the Weiss subcommittee has consciously been pursuing its investigation very slowly. Because of the jurisdiction of the Weiss subcommittee, Zuckerman's focus is primarily federal grantees, but that has led her apparently into questions of private funding and financial interest. Commenting on NIH's proposed conflict-of-interest rules, Zuckerman noted that the research institute is "now considering regulations that say that anybody who gets federal funds from NIH cannot have a financial interest in the company that makes the product, device or drug that they are studying for NIH. They can have stock in anything they want as long as it doesn't involve the research that they are doing for NIH." The key question now for NIH, Zuckerman continued, is how to define "financial interest." To illustrate the gray areas, she asked: "Is it stock? Is it only a certain amount of stock? Is it only stock in certain companies that make so few products that the stock will go up and down based on that particular product that they are studying? Do honoraria count? Is $ 30,000 a year too much in honoraria from one or two companies? If it is not, is $ 500,000 too much? Is $ 1,000 okay?"
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