Minor Misconduct

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While its certainly not as sexy of a story as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s conflict of interest surrounding nutritional supplements, The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently announced that they had been told by the director of the National Institute of Health that investigators recently found 44 scientists who violated the agency’s conflict of interest rules. Nine of the cases have been deemed serious enough to be investigated for criminal wrongdoing.

In June, the prestigious British scientific journal Nature published a study suggesting that close to one-third of American scientists have engaged in “questionable practices.” The most widely engaged in misconduct was the relatively minor offense of inadequate record-keeping. But unsettlingly large numbers of scientists admitted to more serious matters like changing a study because of pressure from a funding source (15.5 percent) or overlooking other studies with weak methodology or data (12.5 percent).

It’s hard to say how serious the NIH violations are, but its good news that the NIH mostly seems concerned with the bookkeeping aspect of it, which doesn’t imply serious breaches on matters of scientific integrity. And the history here should be noted: the 44 cases stemmed from an original 81 that the committee found questionable and asked the NIH to look into. So of the original 81, only 9 warrant external investigation.

Understandably, the committee seems to be wary of giving any ammunition to foes of the NIH—the same press release that announced the findings calls for full congressional reauthorization of the Institute’s budget. It seems that the Committee members just want to be seen as vigilant watchdogs, not as hatchet men.

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