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TRENDSPOTTER: Research, Reward, and the Myth of Selling Out

Don’t look now, but there is a campaign of persecution against academic scientists who—horror of horrors—either receive government support or work as consultants for private companies that reward them with direct remuneration, patents, employment, or other financial interests.  

This campaign emanates from those who believe that financial incentives generally corrupt scientific research rather than sustain and encourage it. The viewpoint stems from the romantic conception that those involved in research should be doing it for the sake of knowledge, not monetary gain.

One facet of this campaign does not directly target researchers as individuals but would hurt them nonetheless. For example, Senator Ron Wyden, a democrat from Oregon, wants academic researchers and companies to repay the National Institutes of Health for any federal money used to develop a drug with annual sales of more than $500 million.

To its credit, the NIH recently issued a report saying that such a shakedown would force companies and universities to reduce or even cease collaborative work with the agency. What’s more, the NIH noted that the diffuse and translational nature of drug development would make it difficult to figure out what kind of role federal money played in the development of a drug.  

Undeterred, Wyden and others have pledged to establish a money trail from the NIH to academic scientists who dare profit from their efforts. Does this mean that every genomic researcher who used federal money to launch his work or who is affiliated with a company that used NIH dollars to support research will be required to provide some form of repayment under this scheme? You bet.

And what about all you university types seeking to leverage your gene patents and sequencing technologies in order to generate more capital and more research positions and perhaps even a partnership with a biotech company? Get ready to cough up if any NIH or National Science Foundation dough passed through your labs.  

It gets worse: If you also received funding from the private sector or are affiliated in some way with a private company, you’re regarded as a common criminal.

According to Marcia Angell, the former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine , such researchers and their findings cannot be trusted. In an article in The Washington Post in June, Angell was reported as asserting that drug and biotech companies are entering into financial arrangements with academic medical centers and their faculties that ultimately threaten the objectivity and credibility of clinical research.

She doesn’t stop to consider that these partnerships help make research possible. Not to mention that the private sector allows postdoctoral scientists to move from dreary and low-paying jobs into positions that offer greater scientific opportunity and financial security.     

As a recent New York Times article notes, many post-docs find it difficult to raise a family when confronted with antiquated family leave policies, the pressures of academic science, and the modest pay associated with academic research centers.

The emerging dead-end nature of the post-doc world is largely the product of the debate of who should take responsibility for them—should it be the universities, the individual laboratories, or organizations like the NIH that pay for the research?

So when the opportunity to make more money and get involved in more interesting science comes along, what is the message Angell sends to our best and brightest? That they are selling out themselves and science. And if that message from the highest authority of medical morality doesn’t come through loud and clear, the federal government may seek to impose what would amount to a tax on inventiveness if research leads to a promising and profitable new product.

Is that the kind of message we want to send young researchers seeking careers in biomedical research? That no good deed goes unpunished, and no good idea goes untaxed.

Robert Goldberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis and a senior research fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  You can e-mail him at     [email protected] .

Trendspotter is a weekly column that focuses on how trends in politics, patent law, and the US and European markets will affect the genomics industry. The column appears every Friday.

To access previous columns just enter the word "Trendspotter" in the archive search window on the homepage.           


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