NIH must do more to safeguard research, OIG says

Fifty-four percent of research institutions funded by the National Institutes of Health failed to publish financial conflicts-of-interests policies online in 2018, sparking concerns that federal research may be susceptible to foreign influences, according to a Sept. 25 report from the HHS's Office of Inspector General. 

To determine whether the NIH ensures its institutions report financial interests and research support, the OIG reviewed 1,875 institutions that received NIH grants in fiscal year 2018 and were required to have financial conflict-of-interest policies. 

OIG found that 1,103 institutions did not post these policies on their websites. Of the 90 institutions with websites but no posted FCOI guidelines, 45 percent either did not have FCOI policies or did not respond to the OIG's request to provide them. Ten institutions did not have websites, with 30 percent lacking FCOI policies and 10 percent ignoring the request to provide a policy. In addition, the report found that NIH only conducted three audits in 2018 to review institutions' efforts to protect their research, compared to 28 in 2012.

"The concern, generally speaking, is whether financial interests threaten or distort the use of NIH funds for their intended research purpose or the results of that scientific research," Erin Bliss, assistant HHS inspector general, told STAT, citing the potential for stolen intellectual property as a risk to national security. 

The inspector general’s office recommends the NIH develop a risk-based approach for screening peer reviewers and improve its monitoring of institutions to ensure deficiencies do not continue.

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