by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

Tufts University is the latest institution to step in the Conflict of Interest mess and come out with shoes that smell. The University had organized a conference on conflict of interest in medicine and research, with Iowa’s Republican Senator Charles Grassley as the keynoter. Grassley has been an indefatigable crusader against instances of fraud and abuse against the federal government, and is a principal author and defender of the Federal False Claims Act, which allows whistleblowers to share in the recovery of fraudulently obtained monies (for an excellent account, see Henry Scammell’s Giant Killers). Grassley was unable to attend and was sending one of his chief aides, Paul Thacker, a former investigative journalist now working for Grassley. Here’s what happened next:

The University-wide Committee on Ethics rescinded the invitation on March 13, according to e-mails obtained by the Globe. The messages said top Tufts officials refused to allow other administrators to be panelists at the meeting if Grassley’s aide spoke, saying it was inappropriate to do so while Grassley is investigating ties between a Tufts professor and the drug industry.The senator, a Republican from Iowa, sent a letter on Feb. 17 to the president of Tufts, Lawrence S. Bacow, requesting detailed information on the relationship between a “Dr. Boucher” and the pharmaceutical industry, including the amount and dates of all industry payments between January 2006 and December 2008. Dr. Helen Boucher is an infectious diseases specialist at the Tufts medical school. (Boston Globe)

 

The co-chair of the Ethics Committee, Professor Sheldon Krimsky, was the one who notified Thacker that the invitation had to be rescinded because University officials would not participate if anyone from Grassley’s office was on the panel. The Boston Globe broke the story, quoting from Krimsky’s email to Thacker:

[When] “Tufts administration learned that one of the suggested speakers was from Sen. Grassley’s office, the word was sent to the committee that there was no objection to having someone from Sen. Grassley’s office, however, if that were the committee’s choice, no administrators would be allowed to participate on the panel, pending the University’s response to the Feb. 17 letter from the Senator.”

Krimsky had no comment for The Globe. He did, however, speak on the record to us, emphasizing several things not evident in the newspaper account:

  • He never gave permission for anyone to send his private email to The Globe. He presumes it came from Grassley’s office
  • The name of the Tufts doctor that was the subject of Grassley’s letter was made public, again presumably by Grassley’s office, and he questioned the ethics of placing her name in the media when no charges were filed and no evidence of misconduct or conflict of interest given. He himself didn’t know her name before publication of the article
  • He also questioned the sensitivity of the Tufts administration to what was only a letter of inquiry from Grassley’s office about a single individual’s outside activities. He wondered if the sensitivity went beyond that case to other cases at Tufts that have been discussed publicly

There is plenty of conflict of interest to go after, but it has to be done fairly. The evidence suggests Grassley’s office was playing the media in ways unfair to some involved. But it couldn’t do that without something real to play with. Krimsky felt compelled to withdraw from his role in organizing the May conference because he felt compromised by the university’s non-cooperation. In the interests of full disclosure I will state that I have known Professor Krimsky for many years. There are few within academia who have done more to bring the issue of conflicts of interest to the attention of the wider scholarly community. While not confrontational, he is rock solid in his principles. His withdrawal from organizing a conference that could have been a stellar event on an important topic in a town rife with medical and clinical research, speaks volumes.

And what it says about the medical research Establishment, in general. and Tufts University, in particular, is not pleasing to the ear.