Is A Scientific Conflicts of Interest "Witch Hunt" Under Way?

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That's the question asked by Massachusetts General Hospital endocrinologist David A. Shaywitz in an op/ed in the Boston Globe. To wit:

The national preoccupation with university researchers who collaborate with drug companies has now blossomed into a full-fledged witch hunt. Before we burn these heathen scientists at the stake, however, we might want to step back and examine our underlying assumptions. . . .

Ultimately, the myopic focus on financial conflicts is likely to discourage relationships between university researchers and drug companies–a bad idea, since these associations offer enormous potential for medical advancement.

Whole thing here.

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  1. you’re just pissed cause people always call you out when you’re shilling for your sponsors.

    still, everyone’s gotta make a living, and as a libertarian, i assume you think your personal choices are as “vaild” as those of others who sell themselves for money.

    it’s just sad that everyone around you becomes suspect because of your taint. it’s a great magazine – but such conflicts only serve to make people question the sincerity and validity of the arguments it makes.

  2. What annoys me is that this concern only operates in one direction: professional environmentalists, personal injury lawyers, and various self-styled reformers and watchdogs are all assumed to operate only from the highest and purest of motives, regardless of where their paychecks come from. But if a doctor is paid to evaluate a drug, we must assume that Evil industry money has corrupted the entire process!

  3. “it’s just sad that everyone around you becomes suspect because of your taint”

    that one just writes itself. oh yeah!
    wakka wakka!

  4. You know, if everyone were only in ‘it’ for the money, then it’d sure be alot easier to find a decent hooker.

  5. “it’s just sad that everyone around you becomes suspect because of your taint”

    that one just writes itself. oh yeah!
    wakka wakka!

  6. PapayaSF,

    while not entirely disagreeing with your point, i just wonder, do you really think personal injury lawyers are assumed to operate from the highest and purest of motives by most people?

    i’d be hard pressed to think of a more reviled profession than a personal injury lawyer.

    just sayin.

  7. Downstater: Well, that’s true for people involved in the “I spilled coffee in my lap” sort of lawsuit, but it seems that people like Erin Brokovitch and Ralph Nader and Bill Lerach often get a pass because they supposedly work on behalf of “the little guy.”

  8. Don’t you understand how that sort of analysis works? There are interests who stand to directly make money from policy changes that can come about thru public opinion changes. The “reformers and watchdogs” by contrast are usually working for people who don’t profit that way, even if they themselves are paid for their efforts. No particular person knows in advance that s/he stands to gain from spilling coffee.

  9. I can’t imagine anyone who thinks only government is capable of doing wrong is willing to give up the comedy gold of the infamous “hot coffee lawsuit”, but I invested a whole 30 seconds googling “hot coffee lawsuit” to demonstrate that the outrage was pretty much all hype. I know it’s being quoted by a lawyer, but the hollowness of saying “some old lady got two million dollars for spilling a drink” was pretty well demonstrated by The Wall Street Journal (among others) a dozen years ago.

    Closer to the topic: I don’t see that Dr. Shaywitz is making anything like a rational argument. Certainly it’s possible for academic scientists to corrupt their own data for reasons other than greed, as he points out; it doesn’t follow that we should assume all relationships between the Academy and Industry are pure as the proverbial driven snow, as he seems to want us to conclude.

    If questioning financial ties is truly “a witch hunt”, “a dangerous sham”, or even a “myopic focus” (check the quotes yourself), then why does Dr. Shaywitz wrap up with a nebulous call for “foster[ing] productive, transparent collaborations”? Because he recognizes that those financial ties can lead to dishonesty–even citing a specific example himself. The lead giveth, and the peroration taketh away.

    As long as I lack the ability to carry out double-blind studies by myself, I’d like to have as much information as possible about what interests pay for the studies that get published. When companies try to hide their interests, I can’t help but wonder what else they’re lying about; and now that plenty of non-scientists are aware of the issue, I can’t help but believe they have an additional motive to keep their noses clean. Isn’t access to information about products considered a pretty important factor in the operation of a free market? And if not, then why the hell not?

  10. “professional environmentalists, personal injury lawyers, and various self-styled reformers and watchdogs are all assumed to operate only from the highest and purest of motives, regardless of where their paychecks come from”

    The personal injury lawyers bit has already been pointed out.

    I’d just like to add that activist and watchdog groups who are found to be on the payroll or otherwise overly-connected with a corporation or other party with an interest in their work immediately lose all of their credibility. Which is why such groups go to great lengths to avoid such conflicts. “Consumer Reports” magazine, founded by Ralph Nader’s Consumers Union, doesn’t even allow its name to be used in the ads of products it reviews, no matter how accurately their reporting is quoted.

  11. I actually have a high opinion of industry funding of university research. Not just for ideological reasons, but because I saw good things come of it in grad school.

    Of course, the industry-funded projects that I saw in grad school were mostly in physics, engineering, materials research, and optics, and most of the work was in the preliminary stage of the product development cycle. They would come to the physics and engineering departments and ask us to work on whether something is feasible. We would work on a general concept, or the feasibility of a particular material, or a way to synthesize something. Turning that process or idea into an actual product to be sold would happen at the company, and nobody would take university involvement as an endorsement of the final product’s reliability and performance.

    With clinical drug trials it’s a little different. The original concept was developed several years ago, if not a decade ago. The university researchers are testing the final product in humans. A natural concern is that conflicts of interest might lead to selective reporting of data, or an experimental design that makes it harder to detect certain side effects, or whatever.

    I don’t have any experience with those sorts of studies, so I don’t know how the researchers handle those concerns, or how well it works in practice. I would observe that even a study that’s only partially independent is better for the public than having all of the relevant research done by the drug company itself at its own facilities. However, while that quasi-independence may be an improvement for the consumers (when compared to a drug that is tested entirely at company facilities), it may be a step in the wrong direction for academia. The integrity of academics is the reason why people pay tuition to attend universities. If universities lose their reputation, they have nothing.

    What I don’t know is if independence is actually compromised for university researchers doing clinical drug trials. But let’s remember that the incentives are different for clinical drug trials and preliminary feasibility studies at a university. A negative result in a preliminary study (if that negative result is carefully documented and thoroughly analyzed, to verify that it wasn’t simply the student’s incompetence that made the result impossible to achieve) can save a company a lot of money, by persuading them not to waste any more time on a dubious idea. A negative result in a clinical trial, however, may terminate a current or potential revenue stream. Granted, a far-sighted analysis may regard that negative result as a boon, but it certainly won’t help next quarter’s profit statement.

    Anyway, I see all of the potential problems here, and I think it would be a mistake to dismiss those potential problems out of hand, but I simply don’t know enough to say whether those problems frequently occur in practice.

    I should do some full disclosure here: Although I do not receive any pharmaceutical funds, I am working on a project that may be of interest to drug companies. In a couple years I’ll go for an academic job, and I fully intend to seek funds from drug companies. I will do this because the project I’m working on is the sort of thing that can help in the preliminary phase of an investigation. It has nothing to do with clinical trials, side effects, and those sorts of things, and everything to do with making sense of the mechanism by which a drug acts. It would be useful in the early stages of an investigation, not in the late stages.

    Then again, I have no idea if they’re interested in funding universities to conduct research in the early stages of an investigation.

  12. Joe: I’d just like to add that activist and watchdog groups who are found to be on the payroll or otherwise overly-connected with a corporation or other party with an interest in their work immediately lose all of their credibility. Which is why such groups go to great lengths to avoid such conflicts.

    True. And irrelevant. Not all people are motivated by money. A researcher who is a true believer in Naderite consumer protectionism can be just as motivated to nudge results as a corporate shill.

    See the recent “secondhand smoke kills everyone in sight” statistics.

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