Monday, January 12, 2009

The Budget Crisis, Universities, and Key Opinion Leaders

Everyone knows that state budgets across the United States are in a crunch. All state-supported universities are looking for sources of income outside of taxpayer funds. As state legislatures look to cut money, many state universities are in for a big budget hit. So if the state is going to pony up less money, how can a university survive...?

Perhaps by seeking to entice industry funding. Set up a few clinical trials and see what happens. There is nothing inherently wrong about university faculty working on industry-sponsored research. In an ideal world, all goes according to plan and all benefit from such collaboration. Universities love industry collaboration because it brings in good money. Researchers like to collaborate with industry for some altruistic motives, such as receiving funding to work on investigating treatments that might hopefully bring about better lives for people struggling with various ailments. Because receiving funding makes the university
administration happy, it also makes life at a university medical center much more pleasant for those who bring in the bucks.

But how do things really work? Sometimes, they go well. But there are also nondisclosure agreements, in which an "independent" academic researcher gives away any right to discuss the data from clinical trials that he/she is working on unless approval is given by industry. As Graham Emslie, key opinion leader in the field of child psychiatry, can attest to, there are certainly many cases where negative results were found for a drug, but the negative data were buried to avoid any untoward publicity. Academics often farm out their writing of joint work with industry to ghostwriters who spin the final product to pimp a product rather than accurately describe the results. As regular readers know, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

If academics are willing to be oversee industry-sponsored research, have substantial input into writing the final presentation of the results, and actually review the data from these joint ventures with industry, then academic-industry collaboration can be fruitful. However, if academics are simply used to recruit patients for clinical trials, stamp their names on papers consisting of data with which they are entirely unfamiliar, and are complicit in hiding negative data, then the current sad state of affairs will continue unabated.

Given the current financial situation, universities will be encouraging faculty very strongly to get external funding for their work, and we can only hope that academics will behave responsibly when such collaborations occur.

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