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  • BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY

Industry Funding of Research: Assessing the Harms

No one argues about the importance of industry funding to medical research. Most clinical trials could not take place without it. The questions are about the effects of this relationship–does it bias researchers and degrade scientific integrity and, if so, in what ways?

A new study goes deeper than previous studies in answering these questions. The study targeted the 33 universities in the United States that receive the most research funding. A survey of clinical researchers there asked about the importance of industry money in their departments, their colleagues’ particular financial arrangements with industry, and whether industry support compromised research integrity.

Sixty-six percent of respondents received industry funding. Specifically:

  • 62 percent got industry money for research and publication.
  • 14 percent of those with endowed chairs had them funded by industry.
  • 7 percent had an equity interest in a company that supported their research, and of these, half had an equity interest worth $100,000 to $500,000.

 

Like earlier studies, this one found that industry sponsors pressured researchers in certain ways. Of the respondents with industry-supported research:

  • 13 percent had first-hand knowledge that a colleague had been asked to delay publishing research results.
  • 8 percent said that a colleague had been asked to present research results in a way that favored the sponsor’s drug or product.
  • 7 percent said that a colleague had been asked to keep research results a secret.
  • In all, 25 percent of respondents said that the interpretation of research data at their institution had been compromised, calling into question the assertion made by two-thirds of department chairs in a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that industry funding has no effect on professional activities.

 

The more important industry funding was to an institution or department, the more common the pressure: 17 percent of respondents who said industry funding was important reported that a sponsor pressured researchers to present favorable results, compared with 3 percent of respondents where industry funding was unimportant or where there was no industry funding.

A particularly disturbing finding was on the effects of industry support on human research subjects. Fifteen respondents (9 percent of those with colleagues who get industry funding) said that the well-being of human subjects had been compromised because of industry sponsorship of research at their institution. The survey did not ask about the nature of the compromise but it did ask about its severity, and six of the respondents said it was serious or significant.

The survey also asked about researchers’ disclosure of financial relationships with industry to human research subjects. A great many institutions didn’t require such disclosure–30 percent didn’t require it of researchers who held an equity interest in the sponsoring company and 40 percent didn’t require it if personnel had a joint commercial venture with such a company.

In all, these findings bring into sharper focus a picture that has been emerging for some time: that clinical research can’t live without industry money, and that clinical research integrity can’t live with it. Industry funding often harms research and sometimes harms human subjects. The patchwork of policies at academic institutions, enforced as an honor code, is not working. Stronger oversight is needed.

Published on: May 29, 2009
Published in: Bioethics, Clinical Trials and Human Subjects Research

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