How researchers are silenced by 'pact with the devil'

June 11, 1999

Confidentiality agreements are undermining the freedom of medical scholars across North America, reports Jon Marcus.

Calling it "the greatest academic scandal of our time", North American faculty unions have warned of increased corporate control of university medical research, which they liken to a pact with the devil that jeopardises scholarly independence and public health.

Representatives of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) say that confidentiality agreements effectively silence medical scholars who conduct corporate-sponsored research, and are a threat to academic freedom and a conflict of interest.

As evidence, they cite two cases - one in the United States and one in Canada - in which university-affiliated medical researchers were fired for going public with information that was potentially damaging to their corporate sponsors.

"We are losing this battle. This is the greatest academic scandal of our time," said one of those researchers, Nancy Olivieri, a professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children, who was threatened with a lawsuit if she told patients that her studies of an experimental drug to treat a blood disease seemed to have dangerous side-effects.

When she published her findings over the objection of the trial sponsor, the Canadian company Apotex, Dr Olivieri was removed as director of the department of haemoglobinopathy. She was reinstated in January after an international outcry from academics.

"Academic freedom means the freedom to publicise the findings of research and to teach without the fear of restraint," said Mary Burgan, general secretary of the AAUP. "You cannot be free to express your views, to share your findings, if your job is in jeopardy."

In the other prominent case, David Kern, a professor of medicine at Brown University in the United States, identified a previously unknown lung disease among employees of a textile company, Microfibres, which was a sponsor of the occupational health programme he directed.

Defying a confidentiality agreement, Dr Kern presented his findings at the American Thoracic Society in 1997 and published them in two scientific journals.

Almost immediately, his position at a Brown-affiliated hospital was eliminated and the occupational health programme was closed, effectively ending his employment at the university.

"There is such a thing as the public good, and the only trade secret here was that people's lives were at risk," said Dr Kern, whose job will end on June 30.

The hospital contends that it had already decided to close down the occupational health programme, and denied it was retaliating against Dr Kern.

Brown president E. Gordon Gee has declined to intervene, saying the university was not a party to the breached confidentiality agreement, although he added in a statement: "Brown University's commitment to academic freedom, including the right to publish results of research and other scholarly work, is absolute and unwavering."

Meeting in Boston, the faculty unions set principles for academic research and urged researchers to resist corporate intrusion on the course of their work.

It also said that government, rather than the private sector, should step in and underwrite a larger share of university research. Corporate sponsorship of university-based medical research in North America has grown from about 5 per cent in the early 1980s to an estimated 25 per cent today.

Bill Graham, president of the CAUT, also blasted universities for what he said was their acquiescence in the problem.

"A university that doesn't stand up for academic freedom doesn't deserve the name of university - it has lost its soul," Dr Graham said. "Unless there is some expression of ideas, and some feedback on those ideas, then science is no good."

The unions, however, were silent on the issue of potential conflicts involving faculty staff themselves who hold personal financial interests in the outcomes of their research.

Asked at a news briefing if she would propose restrictions on faculty conflicts of interest, Dr Burgan replied: "That would be a very difficult thing for us to sign on to until we have some more information on that."

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