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US academic researchers hold divided views on ties to industry

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d3883 (Published 20 June 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3883
  1. Bob Roehr
  1. 1Washington, DC

Academic biomedical researchers in the United States are divided on whether or not ties to industry compromise the integrity of research. The split is largely along the lines of whether the researchers do receive support from industry. But both factions agree that universities’ existing policies on conflicts of interest are “about right.”

The analysis was based on 2168 responses (a 74% response rate) from randomly selected academics in four categories at the 50 universities that received the most research funding from the US National Institutes of Health. The paper survey was conducted in 2007 as part of a regular periodic survey process begun in 1986.

Earlier published analysis from the same survey showed that the industry provides just 8.7% of overall academic research funding. “Slightly more than half (53%) of medical school researchers in America have some kind of financial relationship with a company,” said the author of the survey, Eric Campbell, director of research at the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The likelihood of a relationship increased with time and with the prestige of the academic position. Dr Campbell said that researchers with a tie to industry were “significantly more productive in terms of publications; they publish twice as much as the faculty who don’t have relationships with industry . . . and they publish in the highest impact journals.”

The survey found that those with industry relationships had a modestly longer working week than those without such ties. But time spent on teaching, research, patient care, and administrative duties was roughly equal in the two groups; only when it came to time devoted to professional activities was there a significant difference (4.4 versus 2.8 hours a week).

Dr Campbell was speaking at the PharmedOUT conference (www.pharmedout.org/2011Conference.htm) on the topic of the drug industry’s influence on medical education and clinical research, held on 16 and 17 June at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

His new analysis focused on the conflict of interest policy that a university researcher must sign annually. Some 87% of respondents said that they were aware that their university had such a policy, although they claimed varying degrees of familiarity with the policy. Four fifths (81%) of those who were familiar with the policy said that it was “about right” and 12% believed it to be too restrictive, with the balance either saying that it was too loose or expressing no opinion.

“There is absolutely no evidence to support the view” that a substantial majority of researchers are uncomfortable with university conflict of interest policies, Dr Campbell said.

On the question of whether ties to industry compromise scholarly objectivity, only 17% of those with such ties said that it did, whereas 48% of those with no such support said that such ties compromised objectivity.

Dr Campbell said that his survey demonstrates that “there is an abundance of academic based scientists without industry relationships to serve on various scientific committees,” thus avoiding the risk of conflicted decisions.

Given that industry support constitutes less than 9% of total research funding, universities and individual researchers should consider whether it is worth the burden of reporting and managing the conflicts of interest that such ties generate, he said. He implied that in some instances an outright ban might make sense.

Arnold Relman, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, said the answer is “appropriate arm’s length collaboration . . . with respect to research, but zero collaboration with industry on matters of education and clinical practice.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3883

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