NIH fact-finding team to compile report on recent University visit

by Craig Gustafson

The University had four days last week to impress the National Institutes of Health and persuade them to remove the school’s negative standing. But they won’t know if they succeeded until late December or early January.
An 11-member NIH committee arrived at the University last Tuesday to interview 75 researchers and administrators. While at the University, the NIH focused on the University’s new $12 million grants management system, an accounting program that more closely polices the use of research dollars.
University officials are optimistic that they were successful.
“We feel very good about the visit,” said Christine Maziar, vice president of research and dean of the Graduate School.
But this NIH group was only a fact-finding team, not the group that will decide on the University’s status.
The group flew back to Washington, D.C., on Friday to begin work on a comprehensive report. That report will be submitted to NIH officials who will then choose to remove or keep the University’s sanction.
The sanction, or “exceptional” status, is imposed on organizations proven to have poor business practices. Once an organization is identified as exceptional, the NIH closely monitors management of all grants.
As a result of the NIH’s supervision, University researchers have less control over the use of their funds.
Last year, University researchers received more than $350 million in sponsored research. The NIH alone awarded the University more than $128 million in 1998.
The NIH committee plans to finish its report by December, and an official ruling will follow in late December or early January.
The University has worked on a solution to their research woes since 1995, when the NIH first declared the University an “exceptional organization.”
This sanction came after a whistle-blower alerted University officials to misappropriation of funds involving an anti-organ rejection drug called anti-lympocyte globulin or ALG.
The Food and Drug Administration and the NIH later found numerous University violations of program regulations.
ALG sales between 1969 and 1992 brought the University more than $80 million in revenue.
A change does U good
The University spent more than $12 million during the past four years to remove the NIH’s sanction.
Most of that money went toward the in-house development of an electronic system to manage and track how grant money is spent within the University.
The Electronic Grants Management System allows researchers and administrators to apply for and manage grants over the Internet.
“We were basically trying to change the model we had and make it better,” said Edward Wink, the University’s associate vice president of research.
The system is the first of its kind in the nation. Although available to most departments, the system is still optional.
The system’s main advantage is its accuracy. The program automatically calculates, adjusting for current rates of inflation. It also allows researchers to plug in different variables to adjust costs and cuts down on duplicate applications to the same grant.
Wink said the Office of Oversight, Analysis and Reporting staff will be able to spend their time more efficiently because the new electronic system catches most errors immediately.
The oversight office was created in December 1998 to monitor the University’s overall compliance with research grant policy and regulation.
“We gave (NIH members) an opportunity to see the new tools in a simulation type of environment,” Wink said.
When the NIH team visited last week, it saw the new system in full operation. University staff members demonstrated how a grant proposal goes from a researcher, through department and collegiate approval, and finally to a sponsored-projects unit, such as the NIH.
Recent research transgressions
Last June, the University gave back an $11,000 NIH grant after researcher Keith Kajander died of a cocaine overdose on April 28. Before his death, he had led a study on pain research using cocaine and morphine.
University officials reimbursed the NIH even though there was no proof that Kajander misused research cocaine.
An eight-month internal investigation into the activities of Dennis Polla, the head of the Biomedical Engineering Institute, uncovered evidence of financial mismanagement this August.
University officials said that recent problems will not affect the NIH’s decision. But NIH officials were not available for comment.
Maziar said the week of interviews has left University administrators feeling like students.
“We felt there was a good exchange of information,” she said. “We’re all exhausted. It feels like we just got done with midterms.”

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3233.