A substantial proportion of early-career investigators receiving financial aid from the National Institutes of Health to pay off school debt are violating the program’s rules on industry funding, an investigation by Science has revealed. Of nearly 200 clinical scientists funded by the agency’s Loan Repayment Program (LRP) in the last five years, Science found that more than one-third broke the agency’s rules when they accepted money for consulting or industry work, although the investigation also finds that many recipients may have been unaware that they were doing anything wrong.

“The intent of the LRP should be to assist people who pursue something that is very challenging in academic medicine—building a career that is truly independent of conflicted bodies,” Oregon Health & Science University’s Vinay Prasad, who studies industry influence on medical research, tells Science. He adds that, “for this pattern [of violations] to emerge,...

The LRP has awarded around $1.1 billion—covering more than 22,000 new or renewed awards—in the last 15 years.

Science found that, of 182 clinical scientists receiving support from the LRP between 2013 and 2018, nine had violated the rules by accepting research money from industry sources, and 75 had accepted consulting fees or other support that was technically disallowed by the program.

The investigation suggests that the high rate of violations may be partly due to confusion about what is and isn’t permitted. Before 2011, for example, LRP recipients were allowed to accept industry funding. But there were several rules changes in the early 2010s, and as of 2017, there’s been a total ban on corporate research support, Science reports.

Ericka Boone, the director of the LRP for the last four years, gave conflicting accounts of the rule changes and denied that the agency had identified violations of the program’s rules since 2017, despite the results of Science’s investigation, the news organization reports. She also tells Science that “no system is foolproof. But we have a pretty good system.” 

University of Pennsylvania economist Genevieve Kanter tells Science that she isn’t surprised that there’s confusion among program administrators and award recipients, noting that the rules and conditions surrounding the awards are “chaotic.”

Science spoke to people who have made use of LRP funds to support their work in academia. Adrienne Boire, a biochemist and neuro-oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, tells Science that the program helped her pay off $250,000 of school debt without turning to industry for financial support. “I really like . . . the intellectual freedom you have when you’re in a pure academic system,” she tells the news organization. 

Catherine Offord is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at cofford@the-scientist.com.

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