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Some Physicians, Scientists Choose to Refuse Industry Money

Apr 17, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

There is a small group of prominent academic scientists who no longer accept payments from food, drug, and medical device companies.  In this unprecedented trend, some physicians no longer accept payment for speaking at meetings or for sitting on advisory boards.  Although they may still work with these companies—because they feel it is important for scientists to assist these companies in their work with these studies—they work for free.  The scientists involved say their decisions were private and difficult.  For instance, one scientist will experience significant financial sacrifice.  Regardless, the group feels that they are now able to provide decisions based on science and with no connection to money.

This group is acting in response to accusations of ethical conflicts.  According to Dr. Jerome P. Kassirer, a professor at the Tufts School of Medicine and who wrote a book on conflicts of interest, this group’s actions renounce decades of industry influence.  Five years ago, “nobody paid any attention to taking money from industry.  They just took it.  In some instances, I think people thought they were suckers if they didn’t.” 

Even last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided it could not totally ban researchers from its advisory boards who accepted industry consulting fees.  But Kassirer says he keeps finding experts who are rejecting the money, “I don’t think there’s any question that the atmosphere has changed,” he said.  Kassirer attributes this change to publicity about conflicts and the public shame when researchers’ conflicts are published.  “Finally, it’s gotten to people,” he said.

One such example is that of Dr. Peter Libby, chief of cardiovascular medicine at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who said he began receiving offers from drug companies in the early 1980s.  “When you start emerging as an opinion leader or as a researcher who has knowledge and expertise, the pharmaceutical industry takes an interest in either having you consult to help them with their research or to speak,” he said.  Libby felt it was his duty to consult with drug companies to help develop therapies and set up studies.  Although he never owned stock in companies for which he consulted, he always disclosed the fact that he consulted and spoke for companies.  Because he was so prolific, he felt he was free from accusations of conflicts of interest.  Libby spent four years working without pay to help create a public television series, “The Mysterious Human Heart,” a project he felt would educate the public about heart disease and how to prevent it.  He was immediately scorned for having consulted for manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices, “They said we were biased.  What I thought was four years of public service was impugned.  That was a wake-up call for me.  I was singed in the blogosphere.”  Libby decided to continue speaking at forums sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry and consulting for companies, but not for payment.  “I want to speak out about the beliefs I am passionate about regarding prevention and medical advances that I think can reduce disease and save lives,” he said. “It is not worth it to be under suspicion.”

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