Corporations and Campus Research: How private industry dollars influence scientific discovery and threaten public health

On March 26, 2008, the New York Times published a front page story revealing that the Liggett Group, a major tobacco company, had supported research at Weill Cornell Medical College showing the benefits of early screening for lung cancer. The article, published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 did not disclose the source of funding. The Journal’s editor, Dr. Jeffrey M. Drazen, told the Times“In the seven years that I’ve been here, we have never knowingly published anything supported by a cigarette maker.” The authors of the report and officials at Weill Medical College denied any effort to cover up the source of the funding. However, former New England Journal editor Dr. Jerome Kassirer, author of a book about medical conflicts of interest, expressed skepticism about this denial. He told the Times that he believed that Weill Cornell had created the foundation to hide its receipt of money from a cigarette company. You have to ask yourself the question, ‘Why did the tobacco company want to support her research?’ They want to show that lung cancer is not so bad as everybody thinks because screening can save people; and that’s outrageous.

Last November, the University of California at Berkeley and BP, the global energy company formerly known as British Petroleum, signed a $500 million, 10-year deal to create the Energy Biosciences Institute to conduct research on energy and environmental issues. BP will appoint four of the Institute’s eight directors and, according to the Daily Cal, the Berkeley student newspaper, at least 50 BP scientists will be able to conduct proprietaryresearch at UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois. These researchers work under the sole control and discretion of BP, and their work can remain secret and thus free from scrutiny. Critics expressed concerns about the academic integrity of the Institute and also questioned a partnership with a company that has been indicted in numerous environmental violations and illegal business practices. Only a few months prior to signing the contract with Berkeley, BP and its subsidiaries paid $373 million to settle dozens of legal cases, including one that involved the leaking of crude oil from pipelines in Alaska.

To prove that UC doesn’t limit sponsorship to industries under attack by public health and environmental advocates, University of California at Davis recently accepted an endowed chair in chocolate science from the Mars Corporation in order to study the antioxidant properties of cacao.In fiscal year 2006-7, UC received more than $16.6 million from Philip Morris for tobacco research, and in September 2007, the Board of Regents voted 14 to 4 to continue accepting tobacco money for faculty research. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, nearly all the regents expressed disdain for the tobacco industry’s criminal behavior and distortion of research, but several of those who voted to continue to accept funding said they were deferring to faculty concerns about academic freedom. Intended to shield researchers from tobacco industry influences, the resolution adds new administrative procedures. Under this new measure, research proposals seeking tobacco industry funding are now required to pass through a scholarly review and receive approval from the campus chancellor. In addition, the UC president must present annual reports to the Regents on the number of proposals submitted, approved and funded, along with a description of each.

Moving east, the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine decided in 2006 to accept $25 million from Philip Morris to fund research on youth and tobacco. When challenged on the decision, Dean Arthur Garson insisted the answer was simple, a company has offered us $20 million to develop better ways so kids don’t smoke. Period.

These and many similar accounts highlight a growing trend in academia to accept industry money to pay for research, new laboratories, and high-powered professors. In 2005, industry provided universities with $2.3 billion for research and development. While the dollar amount has been growing, according to Daniel Greenberg, author of Science for Sale The Perils, Rewards and Delusions of Campus Capitalism,1 industry actually contributes only a tiny fraction of the overall university research budget—far more comes form government sources such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). In New York State, for example, total university spending on research and development in 2004 was $3.4 billion, of which only $146 million—just over 4%—came from industry.

Why the new push for corporate funding for university research?

If industry pays for only a small part of academic research, why are universities now so eager to pull in industry dollars? Why are they willing to cede control of their own research, a prerogative often jealously guarded in the past? And what are the consequences of this growing source of support for academic institutions and for public health research? In this reportCorporations and Health Watch examines industry influence on academic research; assesses its impact on universities, science and public health; and describes critics’ efforts to counter this trend and pose other policy options.

As in any intimate relationship, changes reflect the concerns of both partners. For universities, the most obvious starting point is dollars. Between 1970 and 2003, federal funding for research increased dramatically, making it easy for many universities and researchers to steadily increase their research revenues. Just between 1999 and 2003, the NIH budget more than doubled from $13 billion to $27 billion.2 But since then, the Bush Administration has cut funding for scientific research at both NIH and NSF, forcing universities to turn elsewhere to support their habit.

On the business side, the quest for a stronger and more direct presence in university research reflects the downturn in federal funding but also a recognition that direct funding offers some advantages. These include the right to conduct research that benefits companies directly; to withhold information that could jeopardize profits; and to send university scientists to appear in public forums to advance the company’s agenda, perhaps with greater credibility than their own staff. In the longer run, these trends can help business to privatize university research, allowing market forces and the search for profits—rather than academic traditions—to dictate the rules of research. As Robert Reich notes in his new book Supercapitalism,3 increased competition among global companies forces them to seek every competitive edge they can find. Increasingly, bought scientists are one such edge.Rather than discontinue research projects altogether, universities and health institutions are taking up partnerships with corporations, exchanging rights to intellectual property for financial support. While this practice is not uncommon to university engineering and technology programs, its increasing presence in the biomedical and other health sectors is of particular concern to the health of the public.

The BP deal with Berkeley illustrates these benefits of direct funding, allowing dozens of scientists to pursue a research agenda shaped by the company on university property, where scientists benefit from the publicly supported (through California tax support and prior NIH funding) research infrastructure but escape the usual obligation to share their findings with the public and the wider scientific community.

The tobacco industry has long hired scientists to ‘debunk,’ or increase doubt about accepted scientific findings that show that tobacco causes cancer and other health conditions. Research studies show that several industries often withhold research findings that could cause a problem for their products or choose to require scientists to pose their research questions in a way that minimizes the possibility for finding harm.

In 2005, the British newspaper The Observer reported that a respected osteoporosis researcher at Sheffield University had questioned American pharmaceutical giant Procter and Gamble’s (P&G), decision to publish drug research in his name even though he had not been given full access to the data that the paper reported, and that the report was written by a ‘ghost writer’ paid for by P&G before being given to him.When researchers change findings at the behest of the sponsoring company to or fail to disclose industry sponsorship of their work, companies exploit the credibility of apparently independent scientists. In the case of Vioxx, the painkiller withdrawn from the market by Merck after it was linked to serious cardiovascular side effects, it appears that university scientists changed their findings at the behest of the company. The editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, which originally published the study, charged that an internal company memo showed that the researchers knowingly suppressed data on three additional heart attacks among Vioxx users that was available months before the paper was published.4 Had that data been included, Vioxx would have looked much riskier.

If universities and companies benefit from new partnerships, what’s the problem?

While growing corporate academic research partnerships may bring benefits to both universities and companies, they raise serious problems for academic integrity, scientific credibility and public health.

First, the imperative to produce findings that benefit the bottom line encourages biased, even dangerous science. For example, on his blog (BrodyHooked) and in his new book Hooked: How Medicine’s Dependence on the Pharmaceutical Industry Undermines Professional Ethics,5 Howard Brody, Director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities University of Texas Medical Branch notes that commercially sponsored studies paid for by the pharmaceutical industry are roughly four times more likely than neutral studies to favor the company’s drug. So commercial bias has been shown to be real and substantial.Similarly, researchers found that studies sponsored by the food industry to evaluate the health benefits of their product were 7.6 times more likely to find such benefits than were studies wholly funded by independent sources.6

Closer corporate ties may also jeopardize traditional academic values of freedom of inquiry, an obligation to share and disseminate research findings freely, and to criticize other researchers’ work without fear of reprisal. In exchange for their dollars, companies often ask universities to sign agreements that restrict publication rights, assign patents or other intellectual property to the company rather than the scientist or the public, and compromise protections for human volunteers.This biased evidence base can skew public policy deliberations—if negative findings have been suppressed, policy makers may falsely assume a product has been demonstrated to be safe. Moreover, increased media focus on industry manipulation of scientific research to benefit its bottom line, whether by suppressing negative findings, ghost writing articles, or preventing authors from sharing proprietary discoveries that could benefit the sponsoring company, can tarnish all scientists. This increased distrust of scientists can make it harder for researchers to participate in public debate as independent voices. For example, when it turned out that much of the research evidence—and advocacy—on behalf of the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine was sponsored by Merck & Co., the maker of the vaccine Gardasil, many citizen groups opposed mandatory vaccinations, even though most public health officials believe the vaccine is a public health advance.7

Since companies support research that they believe will bring in new revenues, they are more likely to fund projects that yield intellectual property that can be patented and sold, such as alternative fuel sources, new processed foods, or medical drugs and devices. Some of these products may promote population health but others do not. Significantly, research that benefits the public but does not generate profits is avoided, thus skewing the research enterprise. As corporate funding increases and government funding declines, this trend may accelerate.

Companies often attach many strings to their gifts, ensuring they can maintain control of the research. For example, in the partnership between BP and UC Berkeley, BP requires that it appoint company representatives for 4 out of 8 board of director seats. Corporate ties to university leaders are especially prevalent in medical schools. In a national survey of department chairs at 140 medical schools and teaching hospitals, Eric Campbell, Senior Scientist at the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that 60% of department chairs and 67% of departments as administrative units had relationships with industry—as a consultant, member of an advisory board, paid speaker, officer, founder, or member of the board of directors.8 When such ties are normative, resisting undue corporate influence may be especially difficult.

Developing guidelines for reducing corporate influence on university research

In summary, closer ties with corporations may represent a threat to universities because they can undermine academic freedom, divert university resources from other more pressing scientific questions and social needs, and make universities accessories to corporate interests rather than free-standing critical institutions.

In recent years, several research organizations and researchers have proposed guidelines to reduce corporate influences on university research. Many professional organizations, university administrators and researchers are resisting the corporate takeover and seeking to establish professional guidelines and standards that limit corporate influence on the university.

Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, for example, lays out a framework in which one can begin to think about solutions to or prevention of potential conflicts. In a 2007 report to the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice, the Health Research Group described three basic approaches that can be taken up by institutions—legal restrictions, policy restrictions, and disclosure.9

As an example of a policy decision, the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business recently turned down an offer of money from Altria Group, the former parent company to Philip Morris. For UT McCombs, the decision was an ethical one. Dean George stated the leadership of the school felt that in some sense it was tainted money, that it is money gotten from a product that is significantly harming people. Associate Dean Paula Murray called the decision to turn down Altria’s money a no-brainer. 10

Professional associations like the International Epidemiology Association, the Institute on Medicine as a Profession, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, as well as advocacy campaigns such as the Restoring Scientific Integrity Network, the Prescription Project, theCenter for Tobacco Control Research and Education, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest work to educate researchers about corporate influences on university research and advocate for the adoption of policies that will remove industry interests from academic research endeavors.

Both the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Union of Concerned Scientists offer explicit policy options for universities and individual researchers.

 

How to get corporate interests out of academic research

1. Universities can adopt corporate funding policies to protect their autonomy and preserve researchers’ academic freedoms.

2. Universities can prohibit representatives of corporate donors from sitting on research programs’ governing boards.

3. Universities can prohibit industry donors from controlling the content and direction of research programs.

4. Universities can eliminate ‘first rights’ intellectual property clauses from donor agreements.

5. Universities can ensure that company representatives cannot make substantive editorial changes in manuscripts or delay their publication.

Source: The Center for Science in the Public Interest. Strings Tied to Industry-Academic Collaborations at ‘Big Oil U.’ Press Release. Jan 22, 2008.

And the Union of Concerned Scientists called on the scientific community to hold Congress accountable to upholding the pursuit of scientific integrity with the following suggestions:

Scientists employed by government institutions commit themselves to serve the public good free from undisclosed conflicts of interest and to carry out science that is reliable and useful, while respecting statutory limitations such as national security laws. Therefore, government scientists should, without fear of reprisal or retaliation, have the freedom to:

  • Conduct their work without political or private-sector interference;
  • Communicate candidly their findings to Congress, the public, and their scientific peers;
  • Publish their work and to participate fully in the scientific community;
  • Disclose misrepresentation, censorship, and other abuses of science; and
  • Have their technical work evaluated by scientific peers.

A third set of guidelines, shown below, has been proposed by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences.11 These provide detailed suggestions for how to negotiate university industry agreements that do not compromise academic integrity or bias results. By using these various guidelines, academic institutions and university researchers can begin to reassert their rights and responsibilities to set the terms for their scientific inquiries.

Declaration of scientific independence*

1. The structure of the research shall not be geared towards producing the desired outcome for the client.

2. The assignment and its objective shall preferably be formulated jointly by the client and the researcher.

3. Remuneration and other tokens of appreciation shall never depend on the outcomes or interpretation of the research.

4. The results of the scientific research shall be published irrespective of whether they are favourable to the client.

5. The scientist shall always be free to publish the findings of the research within a specified reasonable period of time. In this context two months can be regarded as a reasonable period, with six months generally the maximum (this period being calculated from the moment that the final results are submitted to the client). An exception should be made where there are issues of intellectual property in which case a period of no longer than 12 month would be acceptable.

6. The methods of publication shall be stipulated in the contract. Publication in a scientific journal shall take place in consultation with the client, but the researcher shall have the final say on the contents, the authors, the form of publication and where the research will be published.

7. External financiers of research assignments and/or other sponsors shall be mentioned by name in publications and other forms of disclosure.

8. Relevant interests and/or advisory relations of the researcher(s) shall be cited in publications and other forms of disclosure.

9. The text of the contract shall be available for inspection in confidence by the National Council on Research Integrity (LOWI).

 

*This Declaration forms the heart of the code of conduct proposed by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences.

Source: Van der Meer J et al, 2007.11

References

1. Greenberg DS. Science for Sale The Perils, Rewards and Delusions of Campus Capitalism.ChicagoILUniversity of Chicago Press; 2007.
2. Mervis J. NIH Shrinks, NSF Crawls as Congress Finishes Spending Bills. Science. 2006:311(5757):28–9. 
3. Reich RB. Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life. New York: Kopf; 2007. 
4. Curfman GD, Morrissey S, Drazen JM. Expression of concern: Bombardier et al., Comparison of upper gastrointestinal toxicity of rofecoxib and naproxen in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. N Engl J Med. 2000;343:1520-8. 
5. Brody H. Hooked: How Medicine’s Dependence on the Pharmaceutical Industry Undermines Professional Ethics. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: Lanham, MD; 2008.
6. Lesser LI, Ebbeling CB, Goozner M, Wypij D, Ludwig DS. Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles. PLoS Med. 2007 Jan;4(1):e5. 
7. Allen TJ. Merck’s Murky Dealings: HPV Vaccine Lobby Backfires. Special to CorpWatch, March 7th, 2007. Available at:http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=14401. Accessed March 24, 2008. 
8. Campbell EG. Institutional academic industry relationships. JAMA. 2007;298(15):1779-86.
9. Lurie P. Presentation before the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice (HRG publication #1830). November 5, 2007. Washington, DC. Available at:http://www.citizen.org/publications/release.cfm?ID=7553
&secID=1656&catID=126
. Accessed on March 24, 2008. 
10. Finder A. Some Campuses Decide Tobacco Company Money Is ‘Tainted.’ The New York Times. Feb 4, 2008. Available at:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/04/education/04tobacco.html. Accessed on March 24, 2008. 
11. van der Meer JW, de Gier AM, van Swaaij WP, Katan MB. Independent medical research. Neth J Med. 2007;65(4):124-6.