FIRST ON FOX: As lawmakers push for more transparency around how National Institutes of Health employees profit from their inventions, a government watchdog has found that more than 1,800 government scientists collected 27,244 royalty payments totaling hundreds of millions of dollars from 2009 to 2016.
OpenTheBooks.com made the discovery after suing the NIH last year for allegedly slow-walking their Freedom of Information Act requests.
The NIH eventually agreed to share their bookkeeping on royalty payments, but redacted the amounts of individual payments, the invention, and the third parties who are paying the royalties.
"Because those payments enrich the agency and its scientists, each and every royalty payment could be a potential conflict of interest and needs disclosure," OpenTheBooks.com founder Adam Andrzejewski writes.
Some of the top earners at NIH have been paid handsomely over the years, as OpenTheBooks.com found that 34 scientists received over 100 payments each from October 2009 to March 2016.
Two of those top earners continued receiving payments even after they died.
Robert Chanock, a former virologist at NIH, passed away in 2010 but received the 13th most royalties out of the 1,806 scientists who received payments in that 2009-2016 time period.
Harry Gelboin, who worked at the NIH's National Cancer Institute, also passed away in 2010 but was ranked number 21 among scientists who received royalty payments.
While both of these scientists contributed greatly to their respective fields, Andrzejewski says their status as government employees should be taken into account.
"Government scientists were paid by taxpayers and more taxpayer money funded the physical plant, tests, trials and more that helped develop the innovations. So, the fact that royalty payments essentially become inherited property of the scientist should lead to congressional reform," Andrzejewski said.
It's not the first time that royalty payments have come under scrutiny. An Associated Press investigation in 2005 laid bare the potential for a conflict of interest when a government employee works on clinical trials for a product he or she is receiving royalty payments for.
After that report, the NIH promised that scientists would fully disclose the payments to patients, but some lawmakers are now pushing for more transparency.
"NIH still does not readily report royalty payments and it is unclear what protections exist to shield clinical trial volunteers from clinical trials approved by researchers that may have a financial interest in the drug or device in the trial," Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, wrote last month in a letter to the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
A group of Republican Senators also wrote a letter to Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak seeking information on "the degree to which government doctors and researchers have a financial interest in drugs and products they support," as well as "whether any relationship exists between federal grants awarded by NIH and royalty payments received by NIH personnel."