Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: New Brunswick, NJ, USA
Animal Rights Group Sues NIH for information
For many years, NIH has always kept the contents of grant applications proprietary, except for the abstract which is regarded to be public information. Reviewers of grants, for example, are not allowed to tell others of what the grant says because it proposes new ideas and the plans of the scientist.
If the application were public, no scientist would provide useful information on grants that would allow reviewers to judge the quality of what is being proposed. Making grants public through the Freedom of Information Act would essentially dismantle the peer review system that we have.
The so-called Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine is not really a physician group. As the article pointed out, by their own estimates, less than 10% of the membership are physicians. It is also not clear how they got the membership and one wonders if they actually have 100,000 members.
They are always trying to find new ways to stop animal research. This lawsuit unfortunately is another example of how they manage to waste time and effort of scientists. Their goal is to stop all animal research, including spinal cord injury research. It is sad and alarming.
Columbus Daily Reporter December 28 2001
OSU research grant proposal subject of
lawsuit filed by national organization
Daily Reporter Staff Writer
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine yesterday filed a lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health, alleging that the nation's biomedical research agency failed to adhere to the Freedom of Information Act.
The case involves research conducted by Michael Podell at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine that uses cat subjects to study the effects of amphetamines on patients suffering from the feline form of AIDS. The controversial research has drawn the criticism of animal rights groups in the past.
Early this year, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a request for Podell's grant proposal under the Freedom of Information Act.
"This is America. If you are getting federal dollars to fund research" than that research becomes public information, said Dr. Neal Barnard, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine president.
And although the NIH honored the initial request, Barnard said that a sizable portion of the report had been redacted.
According to the suit filed in federal court yesterday, "The National Institute on Drug Abuse redacted large portions of information from the section titled "Research Plan."
Federal law provides nine exemptions to information required to be released by the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act: information pertaining to national security; internal agency rules; information governed by other statutes; business information; internalgovernment memos; private matters; law enforcement investigations; the regulation of financial institutes and information pertaining to wells.
And while NIH officials declined to comment on pending litigation, Barnard said NIH officials routinely redact information under the exemption of protecting business information, which includes trade secrets involving scientific processes.
"It happens all the time. Researchers are always hiding what they do. What is new is that we are calling them to the table on it," Barnard said.
He added that research funded by public money should not be considered confidential in nature.
"I'm not so sure that if people are getting government money, it should be treated as a trade secret," Barnard said.
According to a local legal expert, the practice of deeming information a trade secret is anything but novel.
"It is not uncommon to have public records submitted and the (submitting) parties request that certain information remain confidential," said Frank Carsonie, a partner in the health law practice area at Schottenstein, Zox & Dunn.
In this case, Dr. Podell could have requested that certain information contained in his grant request be deemed proprietary in nature and protected from FOIA requests.
But the suit filed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Research failed to name either Podell or OSU as defendants, because the responsibility for providing the information rested on the government agency funding the research, Barnard said.
"My presumption is that NIH went to Dr. Podell and asked what he wanted to be redacted. But it is their responsibility to say that they are required by law to provide that information," Barnard said.
Officials at OSU College of Veterinary Medicine could not be reached for comment due to their holiday schedules.
According to Barnard, NIH often works with researchers in order to determine what information should or should not be released as public. "The NIH always colludes to hide research," he said.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, requesting parties could appeal a denial, and agencies must direct the party as to where appeals should be sent, though the committee alleged that the NIH response to the FOIA request contained no information as to where appeals should be directed.
According to the complaint, agencies must respond either to an initial request or an appeal within 20 days. On March 21, the committee submitted its appeal to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the institute that approved the funding.
In subsequent months, the committee alleged that a number of factors contributed to delays in responding to the appeal request, including the death of the National Institute of Drug Abuse Freedom of Information officer.
"The law is very clear on how you have to respond (to FOIA requests)," Barnard said. "The initial delays were understandable, but we filed this request almost a year ago."
Subsequent to Jan Lipkin assuming responsibilities as Freedom of Information Officer for the National Institute of Drug Abuse, committee officials were informed that NIH was the proper venue for pursuing appeals.
Earlier this month, NIH officials requested that the committee amend its appeal to exclude the request for resources information, a request the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine declined.
According to the suit filed yesterday, the delays amounted to "a constructive denial of the request and appeal."
Among the plaintiff's requests to the court was that the court order NIH to release all requested information to the committee.
"Essentially, the court will struggle with whether or not this (scientific research) is proprietary information," Carsonie, of Schottenstein, Zox & Dunn said.
While Barnard shares the concerns of critics that Podell's research on felines neither is suitable nor an appropriate corollary to humans, he said that the law suit was a response to attempts to keep public information private.
"First of all, the research does merit the criticism it's gotten," Barnard said. "But they are trying to defend the research by hiding, not giving more details."
Barnard said more appropriate research would include as subjects drug-addicted humans suffering from the AIDS virus.
"Sure, you can't treat them like cats. You can't kill them," he said, adding that differences exist between the feline virus and the human virus making difficult any comparisons.
And while the outcome of pending litigation often proves difficult to predict, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is confident it would prevail in this lawsuit.
"We're going to win this one. (NIH) clearly knew that they were violating the law. I would be astounded if they don't turn around and give us the information," Barnard said.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit organization with more than 100,000 members, less than 5 percent of whom are physicians, according to the group's Web site. According to Jackie Calnan, president of the nonprofit organization Americans for Medical Progress, the committee is closely aligned to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
She said Barnard presides over the Foundation to Promote Animal Protection, which is headquartered in PETA's Norfolk, Va.-office.
" PETA and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine are closely aligned. They are two groups working different tactics of the same issue," Calnan said.
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