Justice Louis D. Brandeis in 1914 in a book about how banks used “other people’s money” wrote the now famous phrase “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” That credo can be applied today to federal funding of heath studies.
Last month, Congress rapped the knuckles of two federally chartered health foundations for lack of transparency over just whose money they’ve been taking and how they’ve been using it. Lifting the lid on a litany of scandals, subsequent media scrutiny has uncovered rot at the heart of the medical research industry.
According to a report accompanying a 2019 spending bill, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Foundation have acquired the habit of listing “anonymous” donors in their annual reports without specifying the amounts received by them, while neglecting to name the conditions attached to donations from special interests. This practice ignores laws designed to regulate medical research funding. Unsurprisingly, a number of scandals have ensued, drawing the attention of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the foundations, and landing them with a reprimand.
In a further twist of irony, it turns out that Congress established the FNIH and CDC Foundation in the early 1990s with the very objective of preventing conflicts of interest and fostering transparency. They were to be the ethical “middle men” between industry and the medical research bodies, insulating the work of the NIH and CDC respectively from the influence of special interests.
The rules of engagement provided are moreover, as laws go, painfully clear: The foundations must report “the source and amount of all gifts” received, as well as “a specification of any restrictions on the purposes for which gifts or grants” may be used. Heeding Brandeis’ advice, lawmakers sought to ensure a healthy dose of sunlight to prevent the murkier goings-on commonplace to public-private partnerships.
In addition to generally shielding the funding of medical research from public scrutiny, the foundations have come under fire for their handling of industry funding and corporate donations with regards to specific projects. A recently abandoned industry-funded study looking at the effects of moderate drinking on heart disease by the NIH is a great example. “Industry-funded” — the lexical lure may sound official and inoffensive, but what it means is that the alcohol industry was able to commission research into the “benefits” of alcohol to health, to the tune of nearly $100 million.
Not surprisingly, the study had to be axed in May after a task force identified NIH staff having been in direct contact with donors from the spirit industry. To illustrate just how deep the rot goes, NIH Director Francis Collins noted that NIH staffers had been “conducting activities that they [were] trying to hide from other staff.”
Adding to the FNIH’s woes, Congress is simultaneously investigating funds channeled to the France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a semi-independent division of the World Health Organization. International government and scientific bodies have already called out IARC for indulging in politically motivated, shoddy science: Among the IARC projects funded in part by American taxpayers’ dime are studies suggesting that substances ranging from bacon to coffee to glyphosate — a common weed killer — all cause cancer.
Despite a record of controversial science, retractions and inconsistent outcomes, the NIH continues to throw substantial sums in IARC’s direction. As a result, under mounting media pressure, Congress has asked IARC’s new director, Elisabete Weiderpass, to attend a committee hearing and help it “better understand” how she will manage IARC, given that under her predecessor, its operations have constituted “an affront to scientific integrity.”
Meanwhile, though the CDC Foundation may be mired in less scandal than the FNIH, it too has had its share of controversy over conflicts of interest. Having accepted a $193,000 donation from Roche — which manufactures the anti-flu drug Tamiflu — the CDC’s ‘Take-3’ flu-prevention campaign recommends that people suffering from flu take Tamiflu.
The common thread running through the woes of both foundations is quite clearly the undue influence of interests, political and corporate. Medical research is big business and its importance a no-brainer, but the corruption that is able to thrive in the dark places of the public sphere is undermining the integrity of the very bodies whose integrity the FNIH and CDC Foundation were established to protect.
Brandeis’ suggestion in 1914 was not that banks shouldn’t use other people’s money for specific purposes but that they should do so transparently, in open view of anyone who cared to observe. If Congress wants to ensure our dime is well spent on medical research in 2018, it needs to expose the FNIH and the CDC Foundation to a healthy dose of sunlight.
• Mitchell Gunter is a conservative journalist and an alumnus of Clemson University.