National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins should be fired for failure to disclose that his organisation had no competitive bid for a $1bn grant to perform so-called “gain-of-function” research on human embryos, Republican Senator Rand Paul said on Sunday.
“He should be fired for hiding this so far,” the Kentucky senator said on ABC’s This Week. “It’s very unusual for [the] federal government to say we’re going to spend money on research that we are not going to share. That’s probably about as unseemly and un-conservative as you can get.”
Collins’ chief lieutenants on Monday first announced that the study was having issues and had been rejected by NIH, but did not say whether it was due to concerns about the loss of value in the grant or concern that not revealing it could violate an ethical policy.
The loss of value was unrelated to issue of federal funding, a spokesman for the organisation said. The first grant was awarded in 2015. It is unusual for any agency to make a decision on whether to approve a grant mid-way through the research, and one researcher described it as a “bad sign” for the possible grant in a tweet.
Collins did not comment on the rejection.
“We do not have a monopoly on morality,” Paul said. “People disagree with you on a wide range of things. This sounds like kind of win-at-all-costs money.”
In order to comply with the ethics guidelines, many research institutions provide information to other researchers and call them up to check whether they can get the same grant. NIH said the publicly disclosed request for information stated that the request would be based on competitive bidding, but was “misinterpreted”.
Michael Mann, a Pennsylvania State University biologist who appeared on This Week, said the rejection of the grant signals a lack of commitment to ethical ethics for a government body that was created to care for science.
“What this looks like to me is that they’ve got a ton of money that they can throw at projects, they’ll put in a RFP [request for proposal] in a broad way, and nobody would challenge them, because they’ve got that funding, but they want to give it up, even though there’s going to be some likely problems,” Mann said.
Collins, a Nobel prize-winning cancer researcher, took over NIH as director in 2009, later being diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He has also faced questions about the cost of his work over the past two years. Earlier this year, then-health secretary Tom Price tried to make the move to alternative medicine more widely acceptable, with his proposal to forgive loan fees for doctors who counsel patients about alternative therapies or conduct trials of them. Price resigned this summer following reports that he had used private planes at taxpayer expense, which opponents dubbed “diamond dust” flights.
But Paul said that the federal government should not be paying for any research.
“Think about it. Who’s going to pay for all the hard science if the NIH doesn’t fund it?” he said. “If they can’t give us the funding, we have to figure out how to pay for it. Maybe the voters should do it for us. We should take care of our scientists and we should pay for them.”