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Outrage of the Month: Sackler Family Donations to the National Academy of Sciences

Health Letter, July 2023

By Robert Steinbrook, M.D.


If you’re not outraged,
you’re not paying attention!

Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.

Between 2000 and 2017, the National Academy of Sciences received millions of dollars in donations from members of the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, whose drug OXYCONTIN (extended-release tablets of oxycodone hydrochloride) has fueled the opioid epidemic in the United States. Although the donations were not a secret, they were not widely known until the New York Times highlighted the “roughly $19 million” in contributions in an April 2023 news story.

Some of the donations were received even as the National Academy of Medicine was advising the federal government on opioid policy. As Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, told the New York Times, “the academy was looking like it had been morally asleep for the last 30 years….If they begin to see the problem — that is, this huge influx of private money, and private money often comes with implicit strings — they will see it’s a threat to the core principles of the Academies.”

The National Academy of Sciences is part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Collectively known as the National Academies and first chartered by President Lincoln in 1863, the nongovernmental organization has a self-described role of providing “independent, objective advice to inform policy with evidence.” Although the majority of the budget comes from federal funds, the National Academies also seeks private donations from individuals, nonprofits and companies.

The New York Times highlighted a 2011 report claiming that 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, a vastly inflated estimate that drug companies used in sales campaigns. The newspaper also highlighted a committee that was formed to issue new recommendations related to prescription opioid use at around the time that a $10 million Sackler family donation was received. Before the committee’s work began, four people were removed from the panel because of their ties to opioid manufacturers; the report was released in 2017.

In its response to the article, the National Academy of Medicine made the legalistic distinctions that the funds were donated to the National Academy of Sciences, not the National Academy of Medicine, and were used for activities that “did not relate to the opioid crisis, and Sackler funds were never used to support a consensus study or other activity related to that topic.” Although further use of the funds was frozen in 2019, the money had not been returned as of June 2023, with “legal limitations” adding “complexity to this process.”

To restore and maintain public trust, the National Academies should provide a fuller and public accounting of why it has failed to return or repurpose the millions of dollars donated by members of the Sackler family. It also should improve its conflict-of-interest standards and revisit the amounts and types of private donations it will accept at all.