Angry US legislators were due to conduct a hearing yesterday to investigate claims that the US National Institutes of Health has failed to discipline its scientific researchers who improperly accepted payments from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

The NIH has now published the results of an internal probe that it carried out late last year in the wake of media and Congressional allegations. It found that 44 of its staff had violated its ethics rules; however, more than half of them have simply received reprimands or warnings, and eight of the 10 cases which were referred for further investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General were not then pursued.

The two scientists still being investigated, and who remain on the NIH payroll, are Dr Trey Sunderland, a leading researcher into Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer specialist Dr Thomas Walsh, both of whom work for the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Their misconduct was so serious that they would have lost their jobs had they been civilians, and included conducting private work for drugmakers on government time, failing to report or seek approval for these connections, and conducting work which violated their duties under federal law, the NIH ethics officers concluded.

During 1999-2004, Dr Walsh failed to report receiving fees from 25 pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies totalling $100,970, while Dr Sunderland did not reveal that he had earned around $612,000 from Pfizer in the period, said the NIH investigators.

The hearing, to be conducted by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, will investigate “continuing ethics and management concerns at NIH and the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.” Lynne Taylor