When National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins testified before a U.S. Senate committee last week about prioritizing cures, most senators asked him about how research is progressing on specific diseases. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, however, raised questions about the role of the Foundation for the NIH in soliciting private dollars to fund NIH studies.
Established by Congress in 1990, the FNIH is a nonprofit that solicits donations from companies and other organizations to help fund NIH research and support the foundation’s education and training programs. The FNIH has brought in more than $1 billion since its inception.
Warren, a member of the Senate committee on health, education, labor and pensions, raised concerns about the influence of corporate dollars on scientific research conducted and supported by the government.
“Forcing an agency to beg for contributions for money just to carry out its essential mission is a glossy invitation for corruption,” Warren warned, pointing to a recent study funded by the alcohol industry that examined the health effects of moderate drinking. The New York Times published emails in March showing that staff at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism had solicited funding from industry. The study was canceled in June amid backlash.
Warren also mentioned a study on opioid alternatives that was canceled because it was funded by pharmaceutical companies, some of which were being investigated for their involvement in spurring the opioid crisis.
“If these donations from industry are raising so many ethical questions, why should the NIH accept them at all?” Warren asked.
Collins acknowledged those two scandals but defended the work of the FNIH and said that stricter guidelines to accept donations are being drawn up.
“This kind of partnership with industry has made science move faster than it otherwise would have,” Collins said. “What we need to be careful about … is a circumstance where the source of the funds has a vested interest in a particular outcome of the study.”
Though Warren expressed support for stricter donation policies, she suggested that, “if drug companies and rich donors want to chip in for more NIH research, they should do it through their taxes like everyone else.”
She quipped: “I would be happy to write the bill to bump up their contributions.”
Warren’s office pointed to the Medical Innovation Act, introduced in 2017, as a mechanism to fund the NIH by compelling drug companies that have broken the law to send a percentage of their profits to the health agency.
Julie Wolf—Rodda, senior vice president of development at the FNIH, said that the nonprofit had not heard from Warren’s office since the committee hearing.
Citing the findings from the investigation by the NIH’s advisory council, Wolf—Rodda placed the blame for the alcohol study debacle squarely on shoulders of the NIAAA staff.
“That is one where the NIAAA staff actually circumvented the FNIH and reached out to work with industry for a couple of years before we were brought in,” she said. “In fact, our participation in the study was predicated on the independence of the study, and that there would be no role for the funding partners.”
Abbey Meltzer, director of communications for the foundation, emphasized the value of public-private partnerships forged by the FNIH: “While the financial resources are very much important, it’s also important to have the know-how, the expertise and materials. The other resources that are brought to the table are extremely important and sometimes more important than the funds.”
Wolf—Rodda reiterated that government scientists have the last word in deciding how to use the private funds collected through the foundation.
“Funders are welcome to suggest ideas, and their input is often sought, but the federal government is free — and actually obliged — to do what it should do as a good steward of tax dollars regardless of what a funding partner might suggest.”
During the hearing, however, Warren drew a glaring line regarding money from private entities.
“I believe it’s time to end the influence of corporate money in Washington, and that means calling it out and shutting it down in all the forms it takes.”