Barinaga, Marcia. "Confusion on the Cutting Edge," Science 257 (31 July 1992), pp. 616-619.

 

Barinaga, Marcia. "Confusion on the Cutting Edge," Science 257 (31 July 1992), pp. 616-619.

Conflicts of interest are of major concern to some schools: Harvard and Johns Hopkins have new
policies out on the issue and here is Science examining the same topic. Concern seems to have
developed as a result of the recently established hi-tech companies. Major insiders in these
lucrative companies are Big Name scientists who not only have an investment in a company but
may be touting the products the company produces. How does investment affect scientists. The
long and short of it is that there are differences of opinion ranging from ‘investments do not
influence my judgment as a scientist' through to "If I didn't make it clear that I was not with a
company, anything I said would be suspect." (p. 617)

The problem is this: ten years ago, it was unusual for a basic researchers in biology to have large
holdings in a company directly related to his or her field of research. Today, in some fields it's
hard to find a researcher who doesn't consult with or have equity in a hot biotech startup. But
because the situation is new, there is as yet no consensus about how to handle financial
conflicts - or even about whether they are serious enough to bother about." (p. 616)

"One company that burst on to the stock market last year was Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which
specializes in the study of nerve growth factors as potentially therapeutic agents. Regeneron had
a wildly successful initial offering; reported by The New York Times to be the second largest in
biotech history, it netted the company more than $90 million. That stock sale came just 10 days
after Regeneron's 21 March 1991 report in Nature that the never growth factor BDNF may boost
the survival of neurons that degenerate in Parkinson's disease. The article was accompanied by a
favorable commentary in Nature and was written up in The New York Times.

"Was there any connection between the favorable scientific and lay press and the high stock
price? No one in the business is willing to say how closely coupled these factors are." (p. 617)

And what about journal editors: should they be informed if reviewers and authors have financial
interests in the papers they write or review? The fact is, "most major biomedical journals have no
formal policies, relying instead on the judgment of their authors..." (p. 616)

There are arguments that policies should be formulated but this is novel territory to all
concerned. There is opposition, too, to the formation of policy. Some insist that scientists have
always had to deal with powerful conflicts of interest and have been able to do so in the past.
Money, they insist, changes nothing. Indeed, if a commentator-evaluator is tagged or identified as
having a financial identification with a company or product, does not the tag immediately bring
his/her integrity into question? Wouldn't a label be a curse? Good heavens, it's hard enough to
get good people to review an article for a journal and, if the editor insists on labeling the
reviewer, some may refuse.

Authorship of papers as well as reviews of papers can be a ethical matter too. Indeed, the issue
extends to all communications from scientists. Should, ethically, commercial connections make a
difference for an individual? And the answer presently seems to devolve on the choice or
preferences of the individual scientist.

Many people consider financial matters confidential. Here in the U.S. one's finances are private.
Shouldn't that privacy be extended to scientists? And Barinaga puts it well as she ends the piece,
it will get worse as "...(T)his complex situation that journals, universities, and, most of all,
individual researchers, are going to have to be navigating their way through in the next few
years - as the thicket of connections between commerce and academia grows ever more tangled."
(p. 619)