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Survey of Academic Life Scientists Suggests 10-Year Drop in Industry Funding

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Direct industry funding for academic life science research appears to have decreased in the last decade, according to the results of a 2007 survey published this week.

The survey also found that academic life scientists with industry support withheld data or delayed publication due to commercial prospects more frequently than those with no industry support during that time.

The research, which appears in the November/December issue of Health Affairs, was supported by a grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute. It followed similar surveys conducted in 1995 and 1985 by the same research group at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute for Health Policy, allowing them to examine trends in industry-academia partnerships over the past 20 years.

For the most recent study, in late 2006 and 2007 the researchers mailed surveys to a randomly selected group of life science faculty members at the 50 US universities receiving the most NIH support in 2004. The survey asked a range of questions about respondents' relationships and activities in the preceding three years.

Of the more than 2,900 faculty members to receive surveys, almost 2,100 replied, for a 74 percent response rate. As in previous surveys, the researchers sorted their results into groups of clinical faculty (both in medicine and non-medicine departments) and non-clinical faculty (in departments such as genetics and other non-clinical life science).

Considering all researchers surveyed, more than half (52.8 percent) reported some type of relationship with industry in the past three years. The most common types of industry relationships were consulting, paid speaking, receiving research funding as a principal investigator on a project, and sitting on a scientific advisory board.

To understand how industry-sponsored life science research has changed over time, the researchers compared the results of their most recent survey with those conducted in 1995 and 1985.

However, the two most recent samples included faculty members in all life science departments; while the 1985 sample included only investigators working with emerging biotechnologies such as recombinant DNA, monoclonal antibodies, gene synthesis, and gene sequencing. Thus, to compare changes over three decades, the researchers used only the "non-clinical" subset of the 1995 and 2007 group of respondents.

They found that in 1985, 23 percent of faculty members using biotechnology tools reported that they led research projects funded by industry, compared with 21 percent in 1995 and 17 percent in 2007.

Meantime, comparing all life science faculty members over just the past decade, the authors found that the proportion with industry funding dropped from 28 percent in 1995 to 20 percent in 2007.

The study's authors speculate that the decrease in industry-sponsored life science research may be due in part to the widespread adoption of new conflict-of-interest policies at academic institutions or a doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget in the past ten years.

"In the past 10 years we've seen new disclosure policies from organizations such as universities and academic hospitals, and also significant disclosure policies from scientific journals," Darren Zinner, a research associate at the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and lead author of the study, told GenomeWeb Daily News this week.

The newer, more stringent policies "may have dampened [academics'] desire for industry funding," Zinner added. "There has been a general attitude among some that with industry funding you're now tainted. That could reduce the demand for industry money, which in turn could lower the number of relationships between industry and academia."

The survey's findings seem to contradict recent reports in GWDN and other publications that academic institutions are more frequently forging broad-scale research and discovery partnerships with the life science industry – particularly pharmaceutical companies.

Examples from the last two years include alliances between Janssen Pharmaceutica and Vanderbilt University; the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis; Salk and French pharma Ipsen; Washington University School of Medicine and Pfizer; Washington U and AstraZeneca; the University of California-San Francisco and Pfizer; Harvard's Immune Disease Institute and GlaxoSmithKline; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Novartis.

"I clearly didn't expect them to grow. I was a little surprised that they dropped to such an extent, and I wish I knew the causes associated with this drop," Zinner said. "We'll look toward that in the future. Whether how much of this was from faculty being less willing to accept industry money, or industry changing their business model, thinking maybe this wasn't a great investment to keep funneling lots of money toward universities and hospitals – I'd like to push on that some more."

However, the survey results seem to support a commonly held belief that industry-academic relationships are at least partially to blame for a perceived focus by academic institutions on patenting and commercialization at the expense of pure knowledge pursuit.

To wit, in the 2007 survey, 12.6 percent of respondents with industry support and 7.4 percent of those without it reported that trade secrets had resulted from research conducted in the previous year – although the overall percentage of industry-supported scientists reporting such activity decreased slightly since 1985.

Faculty members with industry support were also significantly more likely than those without to report in the 2007 survey that they delayed publication by six months or more (13.4 percent versus 6.1 percent); although that percentage also dropped since 1985.

"These findings suggest that data withholding remains a greater (although perhaps diminishing) problem for industry-funded scientists and that university authorities need to remain vigilant that such funding may increase levels of secrecy on their campuses," the authors wrote.

However, the percentage of life science researchers without industry support reporting that they guarded trade secrets rose to 7.3 percent in 2006 from 3 percent in 1985; and those reporting that their choice of research topics was somewhat or greatly affected by the potential of commercial applications rose to 18.1 percent in 2006 from 7 percent in 1985.

"I believe there has been a subtle change in the social structure of science that is less about the classic rules of openness," Zinner said. "People are starting to see the economic potential of some discoveries, leading to more patenting and trade secrets.

"I can't disprove the idea that the rise in industry relationships since the 1980s isn't a contributing factor in that overall change in culture," Zinner added. "But that change is clearly filtering past those with just a direct industry relationship."

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