Dr. José Baselga, one of the world’s foremost experts in breast cancer, resigned from his medical position after the revelation that he had failed to disclose numerous financial ties to drug companies. These undisclosed connections cast a shadow over numerous academic articles authored by Dr. Baselga, and laid bare the murky connections between industry and academic medical research.
According to urban and environmental policy scholar Sheldon Krimsky, federal policies enacted in the 1980s encouraged cooperation between industry and academic researchers with the goal of quickly translating discoveries into useable products. As industry and academia became more intertwined, conflicts of interest arose when professors formed companies or partnerships to patent or otherwise commercialize their discoveries.
In the ensuing decades, federal research funding has declined, leading academic researchers to seek alternative funding sources. Meanwhile, the biotechnology industry offers well-paying jobs to the limited pool of bio researchers. As a consequence, according to David B. Resnik of the Hastings Center, private firms compete with academia for talent. Unable to match private sector salaries, some institutions can only entice top researchers by allowing supplementary sources of income, such as part-time consulting arrangements with private companies.
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Krimsky notes that drug companies fund continuing education programs for physicians, a pipeline of cash directly to doctors and medical schools. The result of this pipeline, according to Resnick, is research and prescribing practices that “may deliberately, or subconsciously, analyze or interpret data in a way that favors a company’s products.” Study designs may also be influenced. Government scientists, many of who are also physicians, face the same pressures and may also have conflicts of interest.
Of course, most research is first published in academic journals and then used to make medical and regulatory decisions. Journal editors have started to implement rules for conflict disclosure, so researchers may at least know what biases might be present. Transparency alone is not enough. According to Krimsky, conflict disclosure is still spotty and enforcement limited. The National Institutes of Health require full disclosure of conflicts and places limits on the connections agency scientists may have with outside entities. Institutions are wary, however, of being overly restrictive as some degree of cooperation with industry is necessary. Whether or not there really is any influence on a study, the existence of conflicts undermines public trust in research and medicine.