By: Michael Ortwerth, Ph.D.
FDA relies on its advisory committees as a source of independent scientific and technical expertise and advice on challenging public health issues. Most advisory committee members are appointed as “special government employees” (SGEs). Like regular government employees, these committee members are subject to Federal conflict of interest laws and regulations.
A lack of understanding about our selection and evaluation process has, at times, resulted in confusion and misunderstandings by the public. We’ve been working to bring greater transparency to how the financial interests of committee members are evaluated.
In 2008, we published “Guidance for the Public, FDA Advisory Committee Members, and FDA Staff on Procedures for Determining Conflict of Interest and Eligibility for Participation in FDA Advisory Committees.” That guidance describes how we apply financial conflict of interest requirements.
What has not been previously addressed in guidance is something called “appearance issues.” Sometimes FDA advisory committee members who do not have interests and relationships that are financial conflicts of interest nevertheless have interests and relationships that may create the appearance that they lack impartiality. Appearance issues are addressed in a government-wide regulation regarding standards of ethical conduct for government employees at 5 CFR 2635.502 (informally known as “Section 502”).
Some examples include:
- When a member of the household works or is seeking to work for the sponsor with a product before the committee;
- When a member has had past financial interests with the sponsor with a product before the committee; and,
- When a member has a current consulting contract with a sponsor but the contract is not related to the product or issue before the committee.
We have recently published new draft guidance describing FDA’s procedures for evaluating appearance issues and how we determine whether to grant an authorization for a member with an appearance issue to participate in an FDA advisory committee.
Section 502 implements the ethical principle that a government employee should be impartial in performing their official duties, meaning that they must not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual or use public office for private gain. To the extent that an advisory committee member’s performance of official duties might appear to benefit themselves or certain other individuals who are close to them, they must take appropriate steps to avoid an appearance of violating these ethical principles.
We also explain in the draft guidance the circumstances that FDA considers when determining whether an appearance issue may exist. We evaluate the circumstances and assess whether the interests, relationships, or circumstances would cause a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts to question the advisory committee member’s impartiality in the matter before the committee. For example, if an advisory committee member serves on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization and that organization receives donations from the sponsor that is presenting before the committee, we review the details of the donation to determine whether the member should be cleared for service on the advisory committee.
FDA has flexibility and discretion in deciding whether an advisory committee member with an appearance issue should be authorized to participate in the advisory committee meeting. We evaluate whether the government’s interest in the advisory committee member’s participation outweighs the concern that a reasonable person may question the integrity of the agency’s programs and operations. If so, FDA may authorize the member to participate in the meeting.
Although FDA advisory committees provide advice and input to the Agency, FDA makes the final decisions.
The draft guidance is being issued for public comment before we issue a final guidance. Under Federal law, FDA is not permitted to disclose confidential information provided by advisory committee members related to appearance issues. But we are specifically requesting comments on whether the agency should request that advisory committee members voluntarily disclose if they have been granted an appearance authorization.
FDA is committed to ensuring that appropriate expertise and experience is brought to bear on the critical public health issues facing the agency. Often, we convene advisory committee meetings to obtain independent expert advice and perspective. At the same time, it is important that the process we use to screen advisory committee members for participation in meetings be as transparent as possible, and that we protect the credibility and integrity of advisory committee advice. We welcome your comments on how the agency can continue to meet these important goals.
Michael Ortwerth, Ph.D,. is FDA’s Director of the Advisory Committee Oversight and Management Staff