Filthy lucre that sullies the integrity of the lab

Science in the Private Interest
August 27, 2004

As you might guess, the question in the subtitle is largely rhetorical.

Sheldon Krimsky has been chronicling the ever-closer ties between US universities and biotechnology, pharmaceutical and agribusiness companies, large and small, for more than 20 years. His latest offering is an exhaustive inventory of the costs of encouraging researchers to combine the pursuit of truth and profit.

Those costs are real. They begin with a loss of collegiality.

If the company owns your results, informing your colleagues of new findings can wait, at least until the Patent Office has seen them. Then come obvious conflicts of interest, inquiries in which the investigator, or their sponsor, has a clear preference for one outcome. This, in turn, may or may not lead to bias - depending on how well the checks and balances of peer review and scientific criticism can operate. And there are increasing doubts about the integrity of regulatory systems, especially for drugs, which find it hard to enrol experts without a stake in the verdict.

All this has thrown up an impressive series of scandals, from withholding of data, through undeclared interests in supposedly objective trials, to firing faculty who try to publish results that might upset a major corporate sponsor. In the case of British psychiatrist David Healy, who was appointed to a post at the University of Toronto, the job offer was withdrawn after he gave a talk suggesting Prozac can increase the risk of suicide in some patients. Eli Lilly, which makes the drug, is a major supporter of the university, although the eventual settlement between the academic and the university required both to affirm that the firm had not influenced the decision to trash his contract.

There is some comfort in the fact that most of the cases are taken from the media. That is, they were scandalous so perhaps exceptional. The comfort depends on assuming that the ones we see are the ones that mattered. But Krimsky regards all these instances of questionable conduct as just the tip of a larger unseen mass.

So how serious is the problem? Industry-funded research and development in US universities stood at 7.7 per cent of the total in 2000. It is clear from surveys by Krimsky and others that in biomedicine a higher proportion of faculty members consult for firms than this might suggest. It is so high that in 2002 the New England Journal of Medicine weakened its stringent prohibition on conflicts of interest for authors of reviews and editorials.

In the UK, the proportion of more strictly scientific researchers with industry ties is a good deal lower than in the US, much as the Government might wish it otherwise. And that wish suggests that the role of the university is more complex than simply providing an independent vantage point for those who would speak truth to power, as Krimsky admits.

There is also a social interest in developing the economic potential of discoveries made on campus. And corporations will look to universities for advice because, most often, that is where the experts are.

It is also clear that direct corporate involvement is only one dimension. A variety of tensions increase as a wider range of interests contend over the benefits of science and the social role of expertise. If I am honest, I would like innovation without risk, pollution reduction without effort and sustainable development without serious alteration of my consumption habits. So, I guess, does George W. Bush, a US president whose attitude to policy advice from scientists borders on the Stalinist, albeit that the scientists whose opinions he does not care for get stood down from committees rather than dispatched to the Gulag. Such not-so-secret wishes are probably a graver threat to academic integrity than a few faculty members with stock options.

At the same time, the loss of trust in scientists' pronouncements can be recast as abandoning an unthinking deference towards science that was an invitation to experts to exaggerate their powers and to governments to present political decisions as technical ones. On the other hand, as Krimsky says, "with the decline of public confidence in science, sound public policy is threatened by social disillusionment of any hope for objective knowledge". That resonates in a country where BSE, genetically modified foods and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine have all had a turn in the headlines.

So, in this complex landscape, there needs at the least to be constant scrutiny of threats to proper conduct of inquiry, and continual effort to monitor conflicts of interest, bias and even deliberate suppression or distortion of data. Much of it needs to begin on campus. So it is good to note that the author of this account of public-interest research in jeopardy remains a professor in a reputable university.

Jon Turney is an honorary senior fellow, department of science and technology studies, University College London.

Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research?

Author - Sheldon Krimsky
Publisher - Rowman and Littlefield
Pages - 247
Price - £20.95
ISBN - 0 7425 1479 X

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