The National Academy asks the Court to remove Sackler's name from the endowment

The National Academy of Sciences is asking a court to allow it to repurpose about $30 million in donations from the wealthy Sackler family, which controlled the company at the center of the opioid epidemic, and to remove the family's name from endowment funds.

The petition filed Thursday by the Academy in Superior Court in Washington, D.C., seeks to change the terms of the donations so the institution can use them for scientific studies, projects and educational activities.

The move follows a New York Times report last year that examined donations from several Sacklers, including an executive at Purdue Pharma, which made the painkiller OxyContin that has long been blamed for fueling the crisis of opioids that has claimed thousands of lives.

“The notoriety of the Sackler name has made it impossible for the Academy to carry out the purposes for which it originally accepted the funds,” Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said in a statement released Thursday.

Daniel S. Connolly, a spokesman for the Raymond Sackler family, said he supports the National Academies in “using the funds as they see fit” and would support the change.

“We would have said yes if they had asked us, just as we will continue to say yes despite this unnecessary court filing and false claims about us,” Mr. Connolly said in a statement.

Those gifts, initially valued at $19 million, flowed into the institution, which serves as a federal advisory body and convenes groups to offer guidance on opioid policy to authorities such as Congress and federal agencies. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine derives 70 percent of its funding from Congress and was founded by Abraham Lincoln to be an objective advisor to federal officials.

Groups that weighed in on the pain policy included some experts who were criticized for undisclosed conflicts of interest that included ties to Purdue Pharma. In one case, an expert panel produced findings that suggested chronic pain was vastly undertreated, a claim used to justify calls for increased opioid prescriptions and drug approvals.

Many major institutions and universities had publicly distanced themselves from Sackler's generosity years ago. Some organizations, including Tufts University and the World Health Organization, have undertaken reviews to examine family influence on curriculum or guidelines. It's a step the Academies could consider, said Dr. Caleb Alexander, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who has studied opioid overuse.

“Equally important is that the National Academies understand how and why the Sacklers – and others with financial ties to opioid manufacturers – were able to exert such influence in the first place, and establish mechanisms to ensure this never happens again” , he said in an email. Dr. Alexander has been a paid expert in opioid litigation.

Members of the Sackler family directed the endowment funds to support scientific conferences, prizes, and studies that would bear the family name.

The donations began in 2000, when Dame Jillian Sackler, whose husband, Arthur, died years before OxyContin hit the market, began donating amounts that, in 2017, reached $5 million, state treasurer's reports show Academy.

Sackler family members involved in running Purdue Pharma have donated the balance of $19 million in donations since 2008, when Dr. Raymond Sackler, his wife, Beverly, and the couple's foundation began contributing, according to reports of the treasurer. Dr. and Mrs. Sackler died in 2017 and 2019. A family spokesperson said the donations were clearly described publicly as having nothing to do with grief or Purdue Pharma.

After the news media and prosecutors began to shed light on the roles of Sackler family members in fueling opioid sales, the funds remained in the coffers of the National Academies and gained value as investments.

The Times article caused a stir last year among members of the National Academies — elite scientists, engineers and doctors elected by their peers. In a letter, a group of 75 members, including eight Nobel Prize winners, called on the organization to explain why it had failed to return or reuse the money for years.

“The Sacklers' long history of co-opting the NAS has tarnished its reputation for years to come,” Robert Hauser, one of the letter's authors, said in an email Friday. “My hope is that the NAS will be able to remove the Sackler name from their contributions and reuse them appropriately.”

Dr. McNutt, the president, said in Thursday's statement that the money will be used to counter misinformation or propose solutions to unintended consequences of innovations in science.

“We intend for the new fund to be used to bring our expertise and evidence-based approach to support many challenges facing society, including the opioid epidemic, which has had such a terrible impact on individuals, families and about our communities,” said Dr. McNutt said.

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on Purdue Pharma's controversial bankruptcy settlement that would funnel billions of dollars into fighting the opioid epidemic in exchange for protecting Sackler family members from related civil suits.

Under the supervision of an independent monitor, Purdue no longer markets the opioids it produces and the company would be dissolved if the bankruptcy plan is confirmed. The Sacklers have not served on Purdue's board since 2018.

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