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Scientists who study the effects of new medicines and devices often have financial ties to the companies who make the products. Now, a new national survey finds that such ties are also common among academics who serve on panels called institutional review boards. These committees act as gatekeepers for research studies involving people.

NPR's Snigdha Prakash reports.

SNIGDHA PRAKASH: Institutional review boards are relatively new edition to the scientific landscape. There's the product of scientific scandals such as the Tuskegee experiments, which began in the 1930s and continued up to the 1970s, in which African American men with syphilis were left untreated so that the U.S. Public Health Service could follow the course of untreated syphilis. Historian David Rothman of Columbia University has written extensively on the subject and says that as the public learned about Tuskegee and others scandals.

Professor DAVID ROTHMAN (Columbia University): There was a mounting public awareness at the conduct of human experimentation where subjects were not told they were in research, where subjects from relatively low socioeconomic status were used essentially as the language of the day would have it, essentially as Guinea pigs.

PRAKASH: From that outrage came a federal law that required human experiments by the federal government must first be approved by bodies called institutional review boards. All the large research universities created review boards and they reviewed not just federally funded research, but research funded by industry as well.

This is the first time that a large national survey has looked at whether these crucial gatekeepers are affected by conflicts of interest that plague many other parts of science. The results of the survey are published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine.

Eric Campbell of the Institute for Health Policy at the Massachusetts General Hospital, who led the study, says a third of the survey's respondents had had financial relationships with industry over the previous year.

Mr. ERIC CAMPBELL (Massachusetts General Hospital): Relationships such as having research funding from companies serving as paid speakers and so on.

PRAKASH: For a smaller number of the respondents, 15 percent, those relationships presented potential conflicts of interest. Those members had done work for a company or its competitor whose study they were asked to vote on. And while most said they didn't vote on the studies when they were presented to the Institutional Review Board or IRB -

Mr. CAMPBELL: A small percentage, about seven percent of all IRB members reported that they had voted on a study proposal that was sponsored by a company with which they had a relationship.

PRAKASH: Two thirds of survey respondents said their institutions dealt with potential conflicts by disclosing the ties, Campbell says.

Mr. CAMPBELL: But a third of members said either their IRB didn't have such a process or they didn't know of it. Well, not knowing is the functional equivalent of not having.

PRAKASH: Still most survey respondents, an overwhelming 85 percent said the financial ties hadn't posed any problems on the review boards and indeed most said the presence of members with industry ties enhanced the work of the boards. David Rothman of Columbia University is less sanguine. He says for example there is research that shows scientists don't believe their financial ties affect their scientific decisions, but they do. If two thirds of IRB members don't have ties to industry he says, why not make sure the remaining third are also free of conflicts.

Snigdha Prakash, NPR News, Washington.

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