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As Funding for BPA Research Increased, NIEHS Followed Its Peer Review Process While Also Exercising Its Discretion


Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical often used to produce food and drink packaging, has been linked to a variety of adverse health conditions, including cancer. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) funds studies that test substances, including BPA, for carcinogenicity and other harmful biological effects. OIG received a congressional request to review the extent to which NIEHS funds research on the safety of BPA and the processes NIEHS used in planning and funding that research.


We analyzed NIEHS BPA grants data for fiscal years (FYs) 2000-2015. To determine whether NIEHS followed its peer review process, we analyzed and compared 101 BPA grants and 105 other, non BPA grants awarded during FYs 2010-2015. For both sets of grants, we analyzed relevant funding announcements, summary statements, funding documents, and justifications for funding, if applicable. Finally, we conducted interviews with staff from NIEHS, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about their BPA research and processes.


Between FYs 2000 and 2015, NIEHS funding for BPA research increased significantly. NIEHS's BPA grants were concentrated among few institutions and researchers. NIEHS used targeted announcements to fund about one-fifth of BPA and other grants. NIEHS met basic requirements of its peer review process for all grants. NIEHS used its discretion to fund 14 percent of BPA grants out of order as compared to 4 percent of other grants from FYs 2010-2015. Finally, FDA and CDC have limited roles working with NIEHS on BPA research, although FDA contributed to the NIEHS-led Consortium Linking Academic and Regulatory Insights on BPA Toxicity.


NIEHS may prioritize its research, as it did with BPA. NIEHS's peer review process is intended to ensure that applications submitted for funding are evaluated fairly, equitably, in a timely manner, and without bias, and NIEHS followed that process. NIEHS's procedures also give it the discretion to fund applications with less favorable impact scores ahead of competing applications by justifying them in writing. NIEHS used that discretion to fund 14 percent of BPA grants and 4 percent of other, non-BPA grants out of order. Such discretion is allowed and enables NIEHS to be responsive to emerging threats to public health; however, applying it frequently or disproportionately in one research area may create an appearance of impropriety.