More than 75 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine demanded on Thursday that the organization explain why it has for years failed to return or repurpose millions of dollars donated by the Sackler family, including some who led Purdue Pharma.
The company’s drug, OxyContin, helped set in motion a prescription opioid crisis that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The New York Times reported this month that even as the Academies advised the government on opioid policy, the organization accepted $19 million from the Sackler family and appointed influential members to its committees who had financial ties to Purdue Pharma.
One report issued by the Academies claimed that 100 million, or 40 percent of Americans, were in chronic pain. The figure, later found to be inflated, was cited by drugmakers to convince doctors to write large numbers of opioid prescriptions.
In a letter delivered to Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academies of Sciences, scientists and economists called on the organization to clarify how research committee members who ran nonprofits heavily funded by Purdue were chosen to provide guidance to federal authorities on opioid policy: “How did the system fail in the past?” the letter asked.
“The academy was looking like it had been morally asleep for the last 30 years,” Robert Putnam, an author of the letter and Harvard public policy professor, said in an interview.
“We of course take the concerns of National Academy of Sciences members seriously, and their concerns were in part what prompted very serious conversations here about returning or repurposing the funds, to which the N.A.S. remains committed,” the organization said in a statement on Friday.
The National Academies was chartered in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln to advise the nation on scientific and medical questions. The institution elects new members each year — elite scientists and physicians — and delivers influential advice to the White House, Congress and federal agencies.
Though about 70 percent of the National Academies budget comes from federal funds, it also raises private donations from individuals, nonprofits and companies, including Chevron, Google, Merck and Medtronic.
“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,” Dr. Putnam said of the National Academies’ current leadership.
Signatories of the letter include eight Nobel Prize winners. Two authors are National Academies of Sciences members who in 2017 urged top officials to distance the organization from the Sacklers.
Robert M. Hauser, a prominent social scientist, wrote in an October 2017 email to two top Academies officials: “I have been thinking about the willingness of the N.A.S. to accept support from the Sackler family and to produce events and awards — lectures, forums, colloquia, prizes — however meritorious, in their name.”
He and another Academies member had concluded “that the N.A.S. should disassociate itself from the Sacklers.” The other member was Angus Deaton, a Nobel Laureate and co-author of a book about surging deaths tied to substance use and suicide among members of the white working class.
Dr. Deaton said in an interview that he and Dr. Hauser had asked for a call with top officials about the Sacklers’ involvement.
“We wanted more than anything to warn them that there was a lot of trouble ahead down this route, and that tens of thousands of people were dying and the Sacklers were giving them money,” Dr. Deaton recalled in an interview.
Dr. Hauser, who worked at the National Academies from 2010 to 2016, referenced an in-depth New Yorker article about the Sackler family’s “ruthless” marketing of OxyContin in the email, which was sent to Bruce Darling, then the executive officer, and James Hinchman, then the chief operating officer.
“Sooner or later I thought this was going to blow up in their faces,” Dr. Hauser said in an interview. “And it would really besmirch the reputation of the Academies, which I felt strongly about defending.”
Four minutes after Dr. Hauser’s initial request was emailed, he received a reply from Mr. Darling: “We had a conversation at the N.A.S. Council this past summer on the very issue that you raise, and we made a decision that I would be pleased to discuss with you.”
Mr. Darling and Mr. Hinchman did not respond to messages requesting comment.
Dr. Hauser recalled that Mr. Darling summarized the Sacklers’ donations as something that had been discussed and required no new action. Dr. Deaton and Dr. Hauser felt their concerns had been dismissed.
Two National Academies reports on opioids have faced criticism from experts. One published in 2011 included two panelists with significant financial ties to Purdue and concluded that 100 million Americans were in chronic pain, a number that proved to be greatly inflated. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later estimated that roughly 52 million adults suffered from chronic pain, and more than 17 million U.S. adults experience high-impact or more severe chronic pain.)
Still, the report armed drug companies with a talking point that proved influential with Food and Drug Administration officials who oversaw opioid approvals. It was also cited by Purdue Pharma attorneys in their response to a Senate inquiry.
Another Academies committee on opioid policy was singled out by Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, because of some members’ links to Purdue. That panel, formed in 2016, went forward with a study after four members were replaced.
The letter on Friday asked for “clear answers” to what procedures are in place to “ensure that advisory committee members are properly vetted,” among other questions.
The Academies told The Times that beginning in 2019 Sackler family donations were no longer used for science-related events, research and awards, the purposes for which they were intended. The funds “were never used to support any advisory activities on the use of opioids,” Megan Lowry, a spokeswoman, said.
The donations amounted to roughly $19 million and, as invested funds in the institution’s endowment, were worth about $31 million in late 2021, the most recent accounting available. Universities that accepted Sackler funds, including Tufts and Brown, have reallocated some of the money to addiction prevention and treatment efforts.
Members of the Sackler family who were active in running Purdue Pharma began donating in 2008 to the National Academies of Sciences. The money was used to sponsor forums and studies.
In 2015, family members donated $10 million to launch the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in Convergence Research, according to reports by the organization’s treasurer. Dr. and Ms. Sackler died in 2017 and 2019. An attorney for the family said those donations had “nothing at all to do with pain, medications or anything related to the company.”
Dame Jillian Sackler, whose husband, Arthur, died years before OxyContin arrived on the market, began giving to the Academies in 2000, and donated $5 million by 2017, Academies reports show.
A day after The Times’s report ran, the National Academies issued a statement saying it had explored returning or repurposing the funds. “Doing so in an ethical and transparent manner will be the most important consideration,” the organization said.
A perceived lack of urgency in the statement helped prompt the new letter from Academies members. “It’s another brushoff the way we read it,” Dr. Hauser said.
He added: “We wrote our letter to tell them, ‘You guys have to be serious, prompt and sufficient about this.’”