Private-Sector Funding Presents Ethical Problems for NIH

To strengthen funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the 1990s, U.S. Congress created the Foundation of the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), a nonprofit organization through which private-sector parties could donate funds for research in specific fields. These public-private partnerships have boosted the agency’s operating budget, but experts are concerned about the influence that private donors have over the research that gets funded – and the findings that are publicized – according to a report from STAT News.

The vast majority of projects funded through the FNIH have received broad support, including collaborations with the National Cancer Institute to support cancer immunotherapy research, however, several recent controversial projects have drawn criticism. For example, a highly-publicized partnership with alcohol manufacturers was canceled in June because the NIH concluded that alcohol industry figures were so involved in the planning that the science would be untrustworthy.

Representatives from the public sector are not ready to abandon these arrangements, calling it a balance between risk and reward. “Every time we consider something, we are looking at whether there’s any private benefit to anyone, and how does that balance against the public health benefit that we can create,” said FNIH’s David Wholley, who manages the organization’s research partnerships division. “The risk side of that equation goes way up when you’re talking about things like addiction, and it’s going to be a lot less if you’re creating a public-access database of genes that can be searched to see what causes type 2 diabetes.”

Outside researchers and analysts, though, are wary of the FNIH’s arrangement with private-sector partners: “NIH is well-intentioned and home to many ethical, honest scientists, but scientists are not trained in persuasive techniques and are not privy to industry’s long-term marketing goals,” said Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, a professor of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University.

To repair its reputation, the NIH is looking to add more levels of oversight to the FNIH. Other efforts include completing a plan “to ensure better ethical compliance and better delineate the actual process for private-sector collaboration” that can be presented to an advisory committee in December, according to the report.

Source: STAT News, August 1, 2018.