The public is being treated to a new round in the old battle between those who want to protect this nation's whistle-blowers and those who want to take away their whistles.
This time around the battle is not over the exposure of waste and bungling in the federal government. Rather, it's over the exposure of fraud and conflict of interest in scientific research.The House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment has been holding hearings on Chairman Henry Waxman's bill to require the Public Health Service and the National Institutes of Health to protect whistle-blowers in science and demand full disclosure of all financial conflicts of interest by those taking federal money to conduct research.
This proposal seems to bother some researchers and professional associations, which profess to be concerned about the supposedly deleterious effect of having Washington looking over their shoulders.
Washington should do more than just ignore their self-serving whining. The lawmakers should toughen the Waxman bill.
The Waxman bill grows out of a series of hearings last year that revealed cases in which researchers falsified findings, plagiarized the work of others, failed to disclose financial holdings in drugs or devices they were testing, and hounded colleagues who tried to expose these shabby practices.
How should the Waxman bill be strengthened? Just ask Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota. Writing in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Caplan suggests:
"Not only should there be clear-cut penalties for individuals who harass, fire or penalize whistle-blowers, there ought to be penalties for institutions that tolerate such conduct. Putting a surcharge on all grants received by an institution where whistle-blowers have been unfairly fired or penalized would send the right message about who is responsible for policing fraud and misconduct.
"Similarly, it is not enough to demand the disclosure of conflict of interest. Ultimately, institutions that try to actively discourage conflicts by asking their researchers to divest should receive priority in obtaining federal monies."
Though only a few researchers are involved in fraud and conflict of interest, they do great damage. By protecting and encouraging whistle-blowers, Congress can and should show that it won't tolerate the misuse of public funds for sloppy science.