As things stand today, whether we like it or not, industry funding is on the upswing. The whole enterprise of medicine in booming, and it makes sense for industry to invest more and more of one's millions into it. The pharmaceutical industry has become the single largest direct funding agency of medical research in countries like Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Since the goals of industry and academia differ, it seems that conflicts of interest are inevitable at times. The crucial decision is whether the public welfare agenda of academia, or the corporate research agenda of industry, should occupy center stage when they conflict.
There is enough evidence to show that funding by industry is very systematic, and results that are supportive of the safety and efficacy of sponsor's products alone get the funds. It is no surprise, therefore, that one finds very few negative drug trials reports published, and whatever are, are likely to be by rival companies to serve their commercial interests.
Renewed and continued funding by industry decides the future prospects of many academic researchers. At the same time there is now evidence that pharmaceutical companies attempt suppression of research findings, may be selective in publishing results, and may delay or stymie publication of unfavourable results. This is a major area of concern for all conscientious researchers and industry watchers.
Industry commonly decides which clinical research/trial gets done, not academia, much though the latter may wish to believe otherwise. It finds willing researchers to carry this out. This can be one area of concern. Another area of pressing concern is when industry decides to both design and control publication of research.
It makes sense for researchers to refuse to allow commercial interests to rule research reporting. Research having been reported, the commercial implications of such reporting is industry's concern. But, doctoring of findings to suit commerce is to be resisted at all costs. In this even pliant researchers need have no fear, for if they indeed publish what will work, the concerned sponsor will benefit in the long run. The only decision academia has to make is refuse to comply with predestined conclusions of sponsors for the ‘thirty pieces of silver’. Instead do genuine research and make sixty for themselves.
The useful rule of thumb is: Keep the critical antenna on, especially with regard to drug trials, and more especially their methodology, and study closely the conflict of interest disclosed, and if possible undisclosed, before you jump on the band wagon to herald the next great wonder drug.
There are three important lessons to be learnt by academia in all academia-industry relationships:
i)Lesson number one: incorporate the right to publish contrary findings in the research contract itself. Which means, it makes great sense for academia to concentrate on the language and contractual provisions of sponsored research, to read the fine print very closely, and protect their research interests in case of conflict.ii)Lesson number two: a number of lawsuits successfully brought up against industry recently reflect earnest attempts by patient welfare bodies and others to remedy the tilt. It will result in a newfound confidence in academia that augurs well for academia industry relationship in the long run. Hence the second lesson for academia: do not get browbeaten by threats of legal actioniii)Lesson number three: Academia should keep itself involved right from inception of the clinical trial through to ultimate publication. And this must be an integral part of the written contract.
The time to repeat cliches about the exciting future of the academia-industry connect is past. A concerted effort to lay a strong foundation of the relationship on practical ethical grounds has become mandatory.