Corporate influence on Universities

Academics need to be concerned about “the corporatization of university research,” according to Dr. Arthur Schafer, the director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

 Business’s funding of research is resulting in studies that support corporate profit rather than truth, Schafer told Athabasca University faculty at the Learning Services Conference, held in Edmonton at the end of October 1999.

 As government has reduced its funding for research, corporation have stepped in to fill the gap.  They set the research agenda, censor findings, and decide what will be published.  Ultimately any research they fund must support corporate profits.  “It is very difficult to speak or publish without corporate funding,” said Schafer.

 Schafer said for universities to have the trust of the public they must be independent.  To be independent they must be publicly financed.

 During the 1950s and 1960s the military funded much of university studies and set the research agenda.  Today business has replaced the military industrial complex as the primary source of funding for scientific research.  Two of the principal financiers are agri-business and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

 Soil degradation has replaced the green house effect as the most important environmental problem.  In its search for more efficient ways to produce foods stuffs, agri-business is destroying the quality of soil, air and water. Genetically modified food is becoming more commonplace.  Although it lacks in nutritional value, it is less costly and more profitable to produce.

 Pharmaceutical companies are controlling the research of medical faculty and funding the teaching of medical students.

 There is a 20 percent gap between results found from research funded by pharmaceutical companies and that done independently.  Ninety-eight percent of the results are favourable to new drugs when pharmacy companies fund the research.  When the research is independent of drug companies, it is less than 80 percent favourable.

 One of the reasons is the way research is designed.  Also, findings are “fudged” or data is lost.  Researchers, who speak out against the interference of business, make themselves “permanently unemployable.”

 Normally when people are hired they have the tools to do their jobs, but in universities, said Schafer, research grants and the tools come from corporate funding.  There may not be “conscious corruption,” but accepting funding from corporations puts researchers in a conflict of interest situation.

 Ideally, researchers should be disinterestedly (or impartially) pursuing truth.  The medical researcher and practitioner should have an obligation to the patient and to the truth, not to a pharmaceutical company that provides “a free trip to Florida.”

 In market place transactions, consumers accept the need for “caveat emptor” (buyer beware), but in the physician’s office they accept the doctor’s advice on the basis of trust, not knowing the doctor is in a conflict of interest situation and has a “material stake” in the pharmaceuticals he prescribes.

 Once researchers have accepted corporate research grants, they usually can not report findings which show problems with company products.

Dr. Nancy Olivieri, a blood specialist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, reported favorable preliminary data on a drug called deferiprone.  Three years after her first report on deferiprone, which was developed to treat the genetically transmitted blood disorder thalassemia major, Olivieri had changed her mind.
Longer-term data suggested that thalassemia patients might not benefit from deferiprone after all, and that some might even be harmed by it.

That wasn’t the news that the drug company that helped fund the research, Apotex Pharmaceuticals, expected to hear. Suddenly Olivieri found herself subject to legal threats if she presented or published her results.  She was fired from her job at Sick Children’s and only recently was reinstated.

Dr. David Kern, an occupational health specialist at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, R.I., faced a similar situation.  He was pressured from a corporate sponsor not to publish negative data, showing a link between lung disease and a workplace environment.

In 1994, Kern gradually discovered a cluster of lung disease cases among workers at Microfibres Inc., a textile manufacturer in Pawtucket. Like Olivieri, he had signed a nondisclosure agreement with Microfibres when he started the research. He claims he has met strong resistance against publication not only from the company but also from the hospital and its affiliated institution, Brown University.

While Kern has received support from some colleagues, his contract was not renewed, after more than a decade as founder and director of the Occupational and Environmental Health Service at Memorial and director of the Brown University Program in Occupational Medicine. The hospital says that the program was terminated for financial reasons.

 Rather than speak out, according to Schafer, most researchers would prefer to avoid any troubles and keep their findings quiet.  The companies become owners of the research and publish only the findings that are favourable.

 Check for more details about these stories.

 The CBC Radio program Ideas broadcast a program called “Undue Influence” October 27 and 28, 1999.  The following describes the broadcast.

Medical research is a public/private collaboration. University scientists depend on the pharmaceutical and biotech industry for funding, the industry turns to scientists for new discoveries, and governments rely on industry to translate discoveries into beneficial products. Physician/journalist Miriam Shuchman delves into what happens when private and public interests collide: research is kept under wraps, and scientists who disagree with a company pay a price.

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