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University accused of violating academic freedom to safeguard funding from drug companies

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 15 September 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:591
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    An international group of renowned scientists has accused Canada's largest university of violating academic freedom for fear of losing research funds from drug companies when it revoked a job offer to an outspoken British psychiatrist.

    A letter to the University of Toronto signed by 27 leading scientists, including two Nobel laureates of medicine, said the decision to rescind a professorship offered to Dr David Healy, who currently works at the University of Wales at Bangor, has “besmirched” the name of the University of Toronto and “poisoned the reputation” of its Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

    Dr Arvid Carlsson, this year's winner of the Nobel prize in medicine, and Dr Julius Axelrod, the 1970 winner, were among those who branded the affair “an affront to the standards of free speech and academic freedom.”

    Dr Healy was offered the post of director of the mood and anxiety disorders clinic at the centre after he was chosen by a search committee. He went to Toronto in November 2000 to discuss moving arrangements and to speak at a psychopharmacology seminar before some of his future colleagues. According to the executive director of the centre, Dr Paul Garfinkel, two of the points he made upset several of those colleagues: that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as fluoxetine (Prozac) could lead to anxiety and suicidal thoughts; and that psychiatry, spurred on by the drugs industry, was overtreating people.

    “Several of the people he would have been working with were deeply shocked by the extreme nature of his views, and by his poor methodology and lack of supporting evidence,” Dr Garfinkel told the BMJ. “It was felt that, in a clinical setting, it would be difficult for him to effectively lead a programme where he could not rely on the respect of his colleagues.”

    Academics have been speculating that the real reason for the withdrawal of the job offer might be the fear that the centre's major pharmaceutical sponsors, which include Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of fluoxetine, would pull out their research dollars if the centre hired someone who expressed negative views about their products. The clinic that Dr Healy was to run drew an unusually high proportion of its research budget—52% last year—from pharmaceutical companies, and Eli Lilly was one of the major contributors. The university denies that this was a factor.

    Dr Healy, who is considering legal action for breach of contract, said his talk was well received by the audience, but that it upset the man who would be his direct superior at the centre, Dr David Goldblum. “When I saw him afterwards, he looked like a man about to have a stroke.”

    Dr Healy is an expert witness for plaintiffs in a number of lawsuits over murders and suicides allegedly provoked by taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. In one case a Wyoming jury awarded $6.4m (£4.6m) last June to the family of Donald Schell, who killed several members of his family and then himself while taking GlaxoSmithKline's paroxetine (Seroxat).

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