Congress scrutinises payout

June 18, 2004

The US Congress is scrutinising a cash prize awarded by a leading university to the former head of a government research institute who had just resolved a legal action in its favour.

The University of Pittsburgh insisted that its $40,000 (£22,000) award to Richard Klausner, a former director of the National Cancer Institute, was for his work in cell and molecular science. In his official capacity, Dr Klausner had just approved the settlement of a lawsuit over a contract dispute in the university's favour and had authorised a $300,000 government payment towards the university's cost of settling the suit.

The case is one of a series of events that has led Congress to scrutinise government scientists with ties to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in an attempt to unravel apparent conflicts of interest.

Highlighting Dr Klausner's decision to accept the award, lawmakers said it gave the appearance of a reward for his approval of the settlement and his authorisation of the government payout.

University officials say there was no connection between the money given to Dr Klausner and the settlement that he approved. They say the award was for his scientific research.

Dr Klausner received a legal opinion from a federal government counsel that he could accept the prize, which was awarded in 1998.

But members of the House of Representatives energy and commerce committee argue that the NCI director, who is appointed by the president, is forbidden by executive order from earning outside income while in office.

Dr Klausner resigned from the institute on September 11 2001 and left three weeks later, ending his 20-year career at the institute. He now works at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an organisation set up by the billionaire Microsoft founder to support biomedical research.

Congress has begun examining the National Institutes of Health, of which the NCI is a part, more closely since doubling its budget over the past five years.

The NIH is tightening some of its controls on financial ties between scientists and industry. Scientists who review grant proposals for the NIH, for example, may no longer hold shares worth more than $10,000 in any company that might benefit from the research, or receive consulting fees or honoraria in excess of $10,000.

That change came after The Los Angeles Times reported that senior officials at the NIH had received thousands of dollars in consulting fees from pharmaceutical companies.

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