Academic freedom is at risk in dispute over Gardasil, lecturers say

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 03 April 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:741
  1. Melissa Sweet
  1. 1Sydney

Senior academics are outraged that the University of Queensland has asked an academic to apologise to a drug company for his public comments on a vaccine against human papillomavirus that was developed jointly by the university and the company.

Academics at the university and elsewhere say that the request is a threat to academic freedom and warn that it raises worrying concerns about universities’ independence and ability to negotiate conflicts of interest.

The request came after the company, CSL, wrote to the university’s vice chancellor complaining about comments on the radio made by Andrew Gunn, a senior lecturer in general practice.

The programme dealt with the general issue of pharmaceutical marketing and briefly mentioned Gardasil, whose development has reaped millions of dollars for the university as well as public and political kudos.

CSL’s director of public affairs, Rachel David, wrote: “I feel Dr Gunn’s comments are inappropriate and inconsistent with the long-standing relationship CSL has with the University of Queensland and given the involvement of the university in the development of Gardasil.”

On 14 March the university’s secretary and registrar, Douglas Porter, wrote to Dr Gunn, asking him to provide a written apology to CSL stating that the “comments were made by you in your personal capacity and were not endorsed or authorised by the university.” Mr Porter also asked to be sent a copy of Dr Gunn’s letter to CSL.

Dr Gunn said he was disappointed by the university’s response and that the company’s complaint seemed to be aimed at stopping him from speaking out again. “Even if you’re fairly resistant to pressure, it’s got to make you think twice about saying potentially critical things about their products,” he said.

Wayne Hall, of the university’s School of Population Health, described CSL’s response as “heavy handed” and said that the university’s response was “disrespectful of the rights of academics to speak out on matters of public interest.”

The university’s executive dean of health sciences, Peter Brooks, also expressed concerns about the handling of the complaint and said that universities generally needed to do a better job of resolving conflicts of interest.

“If you’ve got very large amounts of money changing hands, then it’s very difficult, I think, not to let that influence you to some extent,” he said. “It’s a dilemma that universities have.

“Quite frankly, I have said that I think that if anybody at UQ [University of Queensland] makes a statement about Gardasil, including the inventors, if it’s going to be a public statement then probably under conflict of interest [guidelines] they should acknowledge that the university receives significant funding from CSL each year.”

Paul Glasziou, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford and a former University of Queensland academic, said that the freedom of academics to speak without interference from their employers or government was crucial in an open society and that it was reasonable for Dr Gunn to have used his academic title.

Chris Del Mar, dean of health sciences and medicine at Bond University, Robina, Queensland, and an honorary professor at the University of Queensland, said that universities should support academics in saying what they think. “Discourse and argument are the stock in trade of academics,” he said. “To gag [argument] is anti-academic.”

Simon Chapman, of the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, said that the registrar’s letter should appal all researchers and academics.

“The registrar and vice chancellor would do well to read their own website on how academics should present themselves in public. The University of Queensland’s policy states: ‘It is accepted practice that where a member of staff is writing on something which is clearly within the range of professional expertise, it is appropriate for the member of staff’s university position to be given.’”

Professor Chapman said that the registrar’s suggestion that a university would have official views on drug company promotions or a specific vaccine is “both preposterous and inimical to academic freedom.”

David Henry, adjunct professor at the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, said that the university’s response was even more inappropriate than CSL’s.

He said, “It is fairly predictable that a company will react to what they see as a commercial threat, but it is very worrying that a university would require an academic to get clearance before giving an interview.”

“It shows that poor funding of Australian universities has led to desperation in their attempts to raise funds from other sources, including commercial companies. In doing this they are abandoning part of their mission, which is to generate and communicate new knowledge in a fearless and impartial way.”

Carolyn Allport, president of the National Tertiary Education Union, added: “If freedom of inquiry is to be respected as a core responsibility of universities, then it is important that both universities and academics and researchers retain their rights to engage in critical commentary, in the public interest.”

The University of Queensland’s vice chancellor declined to comment and referred the BMJ to Mr Porter, who said that Dr Gunn “had no authority to speak on behalf of the university” and should not have mentioned his university position.

“You’re just beating this up,” he told the BMJ. “It’s an absolute storm in a teacup.”

Dr David of CSL said that she had asked the university to clarify whether Dr Gunn was speaking on behalf of the university, because “if the university does not have access to correct information about our products, it is clearly a more important issue than if the interview simply reflected the opinions of an individual.”

She said, “Neither I nor anyone else at CSL has the power or the inclination to ‘gag academic freedom’ or any form of freedom of speech, and I am not aware of any arrangement with the university or any other academic institution in Australia that would even allow for this possibility.”

A spokesman for UniQuest, the university’s commercial arm, said that the exact value of Gardasil’s returns to the university was confidential but that it amounted to some millions of dollars annually.


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