It’s rare for officials at the National Institutes of Health to summon university scientists from hundreds of miles away. So when Dr. Michael Siegel of Boston University and a colleague got the call to meet with the director of NIH’s Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, he said, “I knew we were in trouble.”
He never imagined, however, that at the 2015 meeting the director, George Koob, would leap out of his seat and scream at the scientists after their PowerPoint presentation on research the agency had eagerly funded on the association between alcohol marketing and underage drinking. “I don’t f***ing care!” Koob yelled, referring to alcohol advertising, according to the scientists.
Koob also made clear that NIAAA would pull back from such research, recalled Siegel and his colleague, David Jernigan of Johns Hopkins University, who described the previously undisclosed meeting in Bethesda, Md., in separate interviews with STAT. Shocked by the encounter, they retreated to an NIH cafeteria, asking each other what had just happened — and why.
It would take them three years to figure it out: In 2014 and 2015, Koob’s agency was quietly wooing the alcoholic beverage industry to contribute tens of millions of dollars for a study on whether drinking “moderate” amounts of alcohol was good for the heart.
Those efforts were brought to light by recent reports in Wired and the New York Times.
STAT has found that the ties between Koob, his agency, and the alcohol industry were deeper than previously known — and that he told an industry official he would quash “this kind of work,” to which the industry objected. Doing so would be a radical departure from the NIH mission, in which decisions about what research to fund are supposed to be based on scientific merit and public need.