NIH joins research freedom debate

June 25, 1999

The main United States government agency overseeing academic research has proposed guidelines that would discourage scholars from accepting some research contracts. It aims to thwart confidentiality clauses on corporate-funded studies that might stifle the exchange of scientific information.

The move by the National Institutes of Health comes only a week after US and Canadian faculty unions met to object to what they called censorship of research findings by corporate sponsors seeking to prevent public disclosure of valuable or unflattering information.

"Academic research freedom based upon collaboration, and the scrutiny of research findings within the scientific community, are at the heart of the scientific enterprise," says the policy, drafted over two years by an NIH advisory committee. "Intellectual property restrictions can stifle the broad dissemination of new discoveries and limit future avenues of research and product development."

The committee agrees, however, that there is room for reasonable limits to protect proprietary interests - including delays in publishing research findings to ensure that confidential information from a corporate sponsor is not inadvertently disclosed. Excessive delays or demands for editorial control are unacceptable, the NIH group says.

The new guidelines are the latest salvo in the intensifying battle over who controls research.

Last month, the American Association of University Professors held a conference about what it called threats to academic freedom posed by corporate sponsors that restrict disclosure.

"The freedom to pursue research and the correlative right to transmit the fruits of inquiry to the wider community - without limitations from corporate or political interests and without prior restraint or fear of subsequent punishment - are essential to the advancement of knowledge," the AAUP said in a statement drafted at the conference.

Now the union is calling on universities, particularly medical schools, to endorse these principles. Union officials, however, declined to weigh in on the question of conflicts of interest by researchers themselves, who increasingly have personal financial stakes in the results of their study. Some run spinoff companies, earn royalties or hold stock in companies that plan to apply their research.

The NIH guidelines will not appease the most vocal critics. The agency concedes, for example, that publication could be delayed to allow the filing of patent applications. "Reasonable restrictions on the dissemination of research tools are sometimes necessary to protect legitimate proprietary interests and to preserve incentives for commercial development," it says.

But the advisory committee also states: "When research tools are used only within one or a small number of institutions, there is a great risk that fruitful avenues of research will be neglected."

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