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Conflicts of interests and science

Paul Grobstein's picture

"Researchers Fail to Reveal Full Drug Pay" (NYTimes, 8 June 2008) touches on enough hot button issues that a deeper problem may get lost in the arguments about the specifics of the particular case at hand. Is bipolor disorder over diagnosed and over medicated in children? Perhaps. Have Harvard scientists violated federal policies and/or university policies designed to prevent confict of interest from impacting research findings? Perhaps. Does Iowa Senator Grasslie have some hidden agenda in publicizing this matter as he has? Perhaps.

What's important to keep in mind, though, as these and related issues are argued about is that this particular case is not at all a special one

"As the borders between basic and applied research, between the academy and commerce, have blurred, the terrain has shifted from one where scientists needed to be reminded to think about the potential impact of their work on the world at large to one where many scientists start with quite deliberate intentions of impacting on the world at large. And from one in which much science was done out of relatively pure curiosity to one where at least as much is done because of, or at least in awareness of, the potential for significant personal gain, financial and otherwise."

Both the federal government and unversities have some measure of responsibility to contribute to constraining the motivation of "significant personal gain, financial and otherwise" in scientific research. But neither has a particularly good track record in dealing with conflict of interest in other realms, and both have some significant conflict of interest motivations themselves. Moreover, they don't really have the resources. As a medical school dean is quoted as saying "Its really been an honor system thing. If somebody tell us that a pharmaceutical company pays them $80,000 a year, I don't even know how to check on that."

Perhaps we need indeed to recognize that to a significant extent it really is, and cannot but be, "an honor system thing"? And perhaps its time for scientists themselves to take greater responsibility for their own behavior as well as that of other scientists? Shouldn't we perhaps have some kind of scientific code of conduct to which we can hold accountable both ourselves and others?

As one observer quoted in the Times article put it, "The price we pay for these kinds of revelations is credibility." That's not a price we can continue to afford to pay in general, and certainly not if we want science to be widely seen as a way to move humanity in new and more humane directions.