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NIH researchers report 8,000 ‘significant’ financial conflicts

Image: Jer123, via Shutterstock

Conflicts of interest worth ‘at least $188m’ listed in NIH database are now made public

National Institutes of Health grantees have reported over 8,000 “significant” financial conflicts of interest—those worth at least $5,000—since 2012.

The database of conflicts, made available by the investigative journalism charity ProPublica on 6 December, likely underestimates the total value of financial interests, as about 40 per cent of entries do not have a specified dollar value.

The cumulative value of declared interests is $188 million. They range from stock holdings and payments for royalties, to consulting work and speaking engagements.

Federally funded health researchers are required to declare large financial interests because any outside income could affect their objectivity.

The 153 entries in the database valued at over $600,000, the highest bracket, are mostly from researchers being given shares or licensing patents to major drug or biotech companies.

ProPublica reports that about half the disclosures were for less than $100,000, while for nearly half of the disclosures, the reporting institution said the value of the researcher’s financial conflict “cannot be readily determined”.

The system depends on individual researchers reporting perceived financial conflicts, and on their institution then reporting this to the NIH.

Most of the reported conflicts were made by academics. The 8,101 conflicts recorded in the NIH database correspond to about 3,000 researchers.

The NIH lowered the financial threshold for reporting conflicts to $5,000 in 2011, after pressure from lawmakers. Under the rules, compensation to the researcher must come from an entity that could benefit from the NIH-funded work for it to qualify as a conflict.

Institutions may opt to publish details of their researchers’ financial conflicts online, but ProPublica reports that very few have chosen to do so. The organisation obtained the database by making a Freedom of Information request to the NIH.