Brainard, Jeffrey. "U. Of Pittsburgh Prize to Former Chief of Cancer Institute Draws Fire From

 

Brainard, Jeffrey. "U. Of Pittsburgh Prize to Former Chief of Cancer Institute Draws Fire From
Congress," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 May 2004, p. A22.

WASHINGTON - Members of a Congressional subcommittee last week criticized a decision by
a former director of the National Cancer Institute to accept a $40,000 prize from the University
of Pittsburgh after he had approved the institute's participation in a $2.7-million settlement of a
lawsuit involving the university and the institute.

Legislators said that this and other awards to staff scientists employed at the National Institutes
of Health presented apparent conflicts of interest, but they stopped short of suggesting that such
awards be banned.

Members of the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives said at a
hearing that Pittsburgh's award of its Dickson Prize in Medicine to the former director, Richard
D. Klausner, looked like a quid pro quo for Dr. Klausner's willingness to sign off on the
settlement.

However, the former chairman of the awards committee at Pittsburgh said last week that the
award "absolutely and categorically had nothing to do" with the settlement of the litigation.

The hearing last week was one in a series by the commerce committee's Subcommittee on
Oversight and Investigations about the NIH's policies on conflicts of interest. The hearings were
triggered by reports that some of the NIH's own scientists have collected large consulting fees
from biotechnology companies.

NOW WITH GATES FOUNDATION

Dr. Klausner resigned from the cancer institute, which is part of the NIH, in 2001. He is now a
top official at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports biomedical research.

In 1996, while her was director of the cancer institute, the University of Pittsburgh notified Dr.
Klausner that it wanted to give him the Dickson prize, which the university awards annually to a
national leader in medicine. Ethics officials at the NIH advised him that he could not accept the
prize money for several reasons.

To begin with, the university and the cancer institute were in the middle of a contract dispute. In
addition, they were co-defendants in a lawsuit brought by Bernard Fisher, a former research at
Pittsburgh whom the university fired after the cancer institute accused him of knowingly
submitting for publication papers that contained falsified data. (He was later exonerated.) Finally,
the ethics officials said, Pittsburgh had received "substantial" grants and contracts from the
cancer institute.

What's more, officials at the Office of Government Ethics, an independent agency that watches
out for conflicts of interest, ruled that because of the appearance of a conflict of interest, Dr.
Klausner could not accept the prize money even if he disqualified himself from all matters
involving Pittsburgh.

Them, in 1997, Dr. Fisher agreed to settle the lawsuit. "Available evidence indicates that Dr.
Klausner orally approved a $300,000 payment from the government as a contribution to the
settlement," said Rep. James C. Greenwood, a Pennsylvania Republican who leads the
subcommittee. "Serious appearance questions are raised because of the timing and circumstances
of the award."

CONCERNED ABOUT TIMING

Following the settlement, Dr. Klausnet received a legal opinion from the general counsel's office
at the Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH's parent agency, that he could accept
the prize, which was awarded in 1998.

Mr. Greenwood suggested that this reversal of the earlier ruling was "overly permissive." And
another committee member, Rep. Diana L. DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, said that government
rules allow officials too much discretion in managing conflicts of interest.

Existing NIH policy generally prohibits employees from accepting cash awards from an
organization whose interests could be substantially affected by the employees' duties. Exceptions
can be made it the money is awarded by an outside organization through a regular continuing
awards program that has written standards.

Dr. Klausner could not be reached for comment last week.

No members of the Pittsburgh prize committee that selected Dr. Klausner knew about the
litigation, said Michael T. Lotze, a professor of surgery and bioengineering who was the panel's
chairman at the time but who was unable to attend the hearing because of a scheduling conflict.

"He was nominated for the award based on his merits," Dr. Lotze said in an interview. The award
recognized Dr. Klausner for his major discoveries in cell and molecular biology and in cancer
research while working as a staff scientist at the NIH, he said. "This guy was a superstar."

And echoing what NIH officials have told Mr. Greenwood's subcommittee, Dr. Lotze said that if
the NIH's scientists were barred from receiving such prize money, it might hamper the agency's
ability to recruit "the best and the brightest" researchers.

The chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, Joe Barton, a Texas Republican,
promised more hearings and more oversight of the NIH which is the largest single source of
funds for university research. "We are going to have accountability," he said at one of the
hearings. "This committee is going to re-establish the oversight responsibility that former
chairman John Dingell was noted for," he said. "And we are going to do it on a bipartisan basis."

Mr. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, led the commerce committee until the Republican Party won
control of the House in 1994,and he was widely feared by NIH and university officials for his
bruising investigations of the agency and its grants. He remains the top Democrat on the
committee.

Until last year, however, the committee's oversight of the NIH had been minimal for the past
decade, even through Congress had doubled the agency's budget between 1998 and 2003.