Academic science's self-inflicted wound

Most academic scientists -- including me and my colleagues -- don't want unnecessary federal interference with what we do. We're like any regulated community. Not happy to be regulated. Unfortunately we have made the unnecessary necessary by allowing improper conflicts of interest to infest academic medicine and predictably, Congress is about to step in.

Until now, the academic response to periodic external scrutiny of potential research conflicts has been increasingly to assert that it can police itself. In 2001, the Association of American Medical Colleges issued recommendations for strong conflict-of-interest policies after the death of a research volunteer triggered an investigation into whether such conflicts contributed to gaps in the review process at Johns Hopkins University. The Association of American Universities followed suit with its own report the next year.


But that was before a new string of revelations began circulating in the media, bombshells originating from the office of longtime drug industry critic Charles Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa, which has been tracking researchers whose financial ties may jeopardize the objectivity of their work. Now several levers of government seem to be converging on Washington's solution of choice: attaching conditions to the purse strings. (Inside Higher Ed)

An NIH funding bill just out of a Senate Committee now has language strengthening financial conflicts of interest disclosure requirements. I am already required to make such disclosures so it isn't clear exactly what more will be required. Perhaps the burden will be shifted from the university to NIH to enforce this. Grassley has aleady proposed another tool, establishing a mandatory registry of payments to doctors and scientists by drug and medical device manufacturers. Whatever comes out of this, it is certain to require more paperwork for scientists, something we all despair about, since we are already spending substantial amounts of time complying with one kind or another of federal regulation.

So I don't like the prospect of still more paperwork. But as a profession, we have brought it on ourselves. We should come down hard on our colleagues who have acted in ways that are at best unprofessional and at worst are unethical.

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It's really a case of not punishing some administrators. It's not like Joe/Josephine Random Associate Professor can do jack sh*t about Random Senior Big Shot Professor's blatant conflicts of interests (and probable illegal actions) without serious repercussions to his/her career. Terminal repercussions. The presidents, deans and boards of regents could, and would not suffer, but they like the money.

@ Barry Do profs in your uni get promoted to assoicate prior to tenure? In my institution it goes together as often as not. People with tenure, who think they don't have the security to question dubious behavior, are a major perpetuator of the system's flaws.

Something that I think would be an easy (non-paperwork generating) first step is for the federal government to make illegal the nondisclosure agreement that most corporations have on research funding. In our institution, the office of research affairs puts together a lovely little bragging sheet about who is getting money, how much, and from where... but "where" often just indicates "corporations". This is because the corproations don't want people (hypothetically, their competitors) to know what research projects they are funding. If all the professors who were getting corporate money had it listed in the main hallways where that money was coming from, it might be easier to self-police.

Becca: Universities, especially the medical centers in universities, differ greatly in their tenure or contract arrangements. Even though I'm a full professor and I have to do Conflict of Interest disclosures for my NIH grants, as do the junior faculty. But no one is enforcing this. And for research that is not NIH funded there is wide variation as to what has to be disclosed. That's why Grassley's suggestion of a mandatory registry would solve some of the problems. One of the big problem areas is with clinical faculty, many of whom don't have tenure or regular teaching duties, but they consult with drug companies and do research on those drugs or devices. The universities encourage this and in some cases almost require that you commercialize your research (they get mad when you put it into the public domain), so the administrators are partially to blame, both for their lack of oversight and their enabling and encouraging bad behavior. That's my view, anyway, and I've been around a long time. I've seen things get much worse in the 40 years I've been an academic scientist. I was also a Department Chair for many decades and I've seen it from that side too, It is, indeed, a self inflicted wound.