WASHINGTON — The controversy over research conducted by the National Institutes of Health on the health impacts of moderate drinking has reached Capitol Hill, where a lawmaker on Wednesday stridently questioned the agency’s director, Francis Collins, over the NIH’s reportedly cozy relationship with the alcohol industry.
In response to a question about reports that the NIH had allowed industry partnerships to influence research into alcohol use and the impact of alcohol marketing, Collins told Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) that the NIH is “looking into this in a very aggressive way.”
“I’ve instructed my staff at the Office of Management Assessment to look at the details of exactly what happened in terms of the relationship between NIH employees and the beverage industry, and the formulation of a possible research plan,” Collins said.
STAT reported last week that Dr. George Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, had quashed research demonstrating a link between alcohol marketing and underage drinking as he wooed an industry group to fund another set of studies, telling scientists at one point, “I don’t f***ing care!”
Koob also assured a beverage industry lobbyist that such research on alcohol advertising “will NOT happen again.” A subsequent STAT review of NIAAA grants found that the agency has not funded research by outside scientists into the impact of alcohol advertising since 2014.
Collins, in response to a question about whether the NIH should fund such research, said he considered studies on youth alcohol use “a highly appropriate area for NIH research.”
Collins also said that a high-ranking advisory panel would be looking into the issue — not just for the methodology, as had been previously reported, but also to determine whether such research had been worth a substantial investment — and public-private partnership, to begin with.
“I am putting together a working group of my highest-level advisory committee — that’s the advisory committee to the director — to basically ask the question, scientifically: What is the merit of conducting such a study?” Collins said. “Does it, in fact, justify this kind of investment?”
Roybal-Allard’s questions were a departure from the friendly welcome that Collins, who is popular among lawmakers from both parties, typically receives at the Capitol.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a former NIH-funded researcher who has criticized the agency at times, defended such public-private partnerships, citing as a model the pharmaceutical industry’s contributions to NIH research in the early stages of drug development.
“I want my working group to look at those scientific questions, and render an opinion,” Collins said. “And we’re going to do this all quite quickly. I agree with you, this is a serious circumstance. We are going to look into it with great intensity, and if necessary, turn over anything we find that seems truly inappropriate to the inspector general.”