National Academies Revise Conflict of Interest Policy

The proposed changes follow revelations in recent years that committee members preparing reports for the Academies did not disclose industry relationships. 

May 3, 2017
Ashley P. Taylor

WIKIMEDIA, ANOTHER BELIEVERThe National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are revising their conflict-of-interest (COI) policy, National Academy of Sciences (NAS) president Marcia McNutt announced this Monday (May 1) in an address to the organization’s 154th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

Two changes were effective “immediately,” as the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week and National Academies spokesman William Kearney confirmed to The Scientist. First, the academies will publish disclosures of conflicts of interest (COIs) of the scientists who author academy reports in the documents themselves. Previously, those COI disclosures appeared only online. The academies will also hold its staff members to the same COI policies as the report authors, also known as committee members.

Several other changes are under consideration. The academies are reconsidering the dollar value of gifts, income, and investments that constitutes a COI. They are also thinking about including not only current activities and relationships, as they do now, but past ones when determining whether or not a committee member has a COI. The academies’ “leadership is considering what type of expertise or experts to draw upon as it conducts its review,” Kearney said, adding that he does not know when the review will be complete.

In her speech, McNutt said that their “guidance for revising [the] conflict-of-interest policies” originated from a 2015 retreat during which academy members discussed how to promote scientific integrity and maintain public trust, the recommendations of which later appeared as a “Perspectives” article in Science.

Watchdogs have been scrutinizing the academies' COI policy, which was last updated in 2003, for longer. In 2014, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that nearly half the members of an Institute of Medicine (now National Academy of Medicine) committee that authored a 2011 report on pain management had current or past connections to companies that manufacture narcotics, including opioids.

In December 2016, The New York Times reported undisclosed COIs among committee members selected to review the regulation of the biotechnology industry. Further, based on a tip from Tim Schwab, a food researcher at the DC-based advocacy group Food and Water Watch, the Times revealed that the NAS staff member who selected the committee members was applying to work for a biotech nonprofit during the selection process.  

In June 2016, Schwab addressed a letter to NAS executive officer Bruce Darling asking the academies to increase the diversity of perspectives and address COIs on the biotechnology project committee. “Dozens of public interest group leaders and academics” signed the letter, Schwab told The Scientist in an email. The report in question was released, in an uncorrected, “pre-publication” form, this March. Only the two COIs the academies identified—and none of those raised by the Timesappeared on the website; no COIs appeared in the report itself.

In February 2017, Schwab and Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University published a study in PLOS ONE reporting undisclosed COIs among the authors of a 2016 academies report on the use of genetically engineered crops. The academies responded to the PLOS ONE study in March, stating that it wasunfair and disingenuous for the authors of the PLOS article to apply their own perception of conflict of interest to our committee in place of our tested and trusted conflict-of-interest policies.”

Now, just two months after that statement, the academies are changing those policies.

Schwab said he believes they are taking his advice in some respects. He told The Scientist that he and Krimsky “made several recommendations, a number of which the academies seems to have been following fairly closely in their announcement today.” Those include the academies’ plans to consider past conflicts of interest (the PLOS ONE authors suggested “requir[ing] committee members to submit three years of financial COI disclosures”) and reexamining the financial disclosure threshold, which the PLOS ONE authors suggested eliminating.

Schwab added that the new policies also seemed to reflect the Times investigation that reported on the study director who had applied for a job in the very industry that was under the academies’ scrutiny. “I think the academies’ announcement this morning about vetting staff members for conflicts of interest is clearly a response to that report.”

The academies’ Kearney told The Scientist that the update is a “periodic review.” Referring to the report on genetically engineered crops and Schwab’s paper, he added: “We fully stand behind that committee and its report which we are very proud of and our decision to review our procedures had nothing to do with that.”

Adam Fagen, formerly the executive director of the Genetics Society of America, worked for NAS from 2003 to 2010, including as a study director assembling committees, and was not involved in any of the controversial committee reports mentioned above. The decisions to disclose COIs on reports and hold staff to the same standards as committee members make sense to him, he told The Scientist, but he is “neutral” about the other potential changes.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to get folks who are both knowledgeable but completely uninvolved with industry or some sort of potential conflict,” he said, adding that “just because somebody has the potential to make money doesn’t mean that they leave their objectivity at the door.”

Beyond questions of the COI policy itself, Schwab mentioned the importance of enforcement. “The existing conflict of interest policy at the National Academies from 2003 . . . was fairly capable, however imperfect, of policing, monitoring, and requiring disclosure of conflicts of interest,” Schwab said. “Nevertheless, the National Academies failed to disclose relevant financial conflicts, so it really does raise a question over how effective these changes will be.”

February 2019

Big Storms Brewing

Can forests weather more major hurricanes?


Sponsored Product Updates

Bio-Rad Showcases New Automation Features of its ZE5 Cell Analyzer at SLAS 2019
Bio-Rad Showcases New Automation Features of its ZE5 Cell Analyzer at SLAS 2019
Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc. (NYSE: BIO and BIOb) today showcases new automation features of its ZE5 Cell Analyzer during the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening 2019 International Conference and Exhibition (SLAS) in Washington, D.C., February 2–6. These capabilities enable the ZE5 to be used for high-throughput flow cytometry in biomarker discovery and phenotypic screening.
Andrew Alliance and Sartorius Collaborate to Provide Software-Connected Pipettes for Life Science Research
Andrew Alliance and Sartorius Collaborate to Provide Software-Connected Pipettes for Life Science Research
Researchers to benefit from an innovative software-connected pipetting system, bringing improved reproducibility and traceability of experiments to life-science laboratories.
Corning Life Sciences to Feature 3D Cell Culture Technologies at SLAS 2019
Corning Life Sciences to Feature 3D Cell Culture Technologies at SLAS 2019
Corning Incorporated (NYSE: GLW) will showcase advanced 3D cell culture technologies and workflow solutions for spheroids, organoids, tissue models, and applications including ADME/toxicology at the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS) conference, Feb. 2-6 in Washington, D.C.
Corning Introduces New 1536-well Spheroid Microplate
Corning Introduces New 1536-well Spheroid Microplate
High-throughput spheroid microplate benefits cancer research, drug screening