Editorial | Published:

A matter of interest

Nature volume 430, page 951 (26 August 2004) | Download Citation

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The biotech industry's top lobbyist faces a problem he was quick to raise as a Congressman: apparent conflict of interest.

Congressman James Greenwood (Republican, Pennsylvania) is, on the face of it, a terrific catch for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which last month announced his appointment as its next president (see Nature 430, 495; 200410.1038/430495a).

Greenwood was, until the announcement, chair of the investigations subcommittee of the House of Representatives energy and commerce committee. His powerful subcommittee has this year been vigorously investigating alleged conflicts of interest among senior scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The main outcomes of his investigation, so far, have been twofold: the implementation of stringent rules blocking links between senior NIH scientists and the biotechnology industry, and the tarnishing of the biomedical agency's hitherto pristine image. Some accounts of the hearings have portrayed the NIH as corrupt, spoiling the chances of any further increases in its admittedly generous budget.

NIH researchers are somewhat flummoxed by news that the man leading the investigation into their links with the biotechnology industry is about to work for it. It looks to them as though Greenwood was sternly demanding that publicly employed scientists steer clear of private-sector involvement, even as he prepared to cash in on his own public service by accepting an annual salary of $650,000, plus bonuses, to lobby for an industry that he used to help supervise.

The committee's investigation — sparked by allegations first reported in the Los Angeles Times — found that a small number of individuals at the NIH had succumbed to the temptation of the barrage of offers from industry, and accepted consultancy or speaker fees. Most had done so within their employment rules; a few appear to have breached them.

But the hearings of Greenwood's committee created the impression that links between NIH researchers and biotechnology companies were out of control and corrosive to the public interest. This has created a backlash that is likely to constrict such links for years to come. The integrity of government scientists is a serious matter and an appropriate one for congressional investigation. But it is difficult to see Greenwood's career change as being consistent with the moral thrust of his committee's work.

He has resigned as chair of the committee and will leave Congress in January to work for BIO; under House rules, he is not supposed to lobby former congressional colleagues directly for a year after that. His appointment nonetheless leaves the impression that mid-level and senior NIH researchers are being held to far higher ethical standards than those adhered to by their overseers.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/430951b

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