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Jan 20, 2010

Academics Who Work in Industry - At What Cost?

  • Once upon a time, eager scientists fresh from graduate school found themselves at a simple, uncomplicated fork in the middle of the road to their careers. Those who were interested in basic science research veered one way towards “academia”, while those looking to develop drugs and treatments headed down the other path to “industry.” Nowadays, the road to scientific discovery is no longer cleanly bifurcated, as myriad footpaths, shortcuts, and bridges join the two destinations. “Translational Medicine” is the buzzword, and the organizations that allocate research funds to academic researchers are increasingly looking to fund projects that have direct implications on human health and promise the possibility of novel therapies. (“I want to research X and Y just because” doesn’t seem to bring in the grants anymore…) It seems only natural, then, that members of academic medical institutions and pharmaceutical/biotechnology companies have cozied up to one another – so much so, in fact, that the representatives of the two cohorts (academia vs. industry) are often one in the same.

    In one example, some senior officials at academic medical centers also sit on the boards of pharmaceutical/biotechnology companies. Partners HealthCare, the owner of two Harvard Medical School teaching hospitals (Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals), recently voiced its concerns regarding this particular arrangement, imposing limits on how much monetary compensation the hospital senior officials can receive for their work as board members in industry. The new restrictions have created a splash in the scientific community, with some people believing the regulations are too harsh, while others don’t believe they’re harsh enough. Either way, the discussion that the decision has generated highlights the continually strained relationship between academia and industry.

    This strain is by no means limited to senior officials at academic medical institutions. Partners HealthCare articulated a wariness of the inherent conflict of interest that arises when hospital officials are closely associated with pharmaceutical companies, but one need not stretch one’s imagination too far to imagine how any academic scientist (whether a senior official, an administrator, or a principal investigator) might be influenced in his/her academic role if he/she is receiving large amounts of money from a paid position in industry. I would expect a bias to especially manifest itself in the laboratories of researchers who have either founded or have monetary ties with biotechnology/pharmaceutical companies. These researchers are in the position that they have access to academia-specific funding sources and the creative freedom to direct their own research projects, yet it is in their best interest to make sure that they are designing experiments that have the best chance of providing favorable outcomes for the pharmaceutical companies that are paying them. Unavoidably, this dynamic establishes a shift in the types of scientific questions being asked, and the strategies employed to address those questions.

    Yet, there is another concern regarding deeply entwined involvement between academia and industry that has not been emphasized as much as the “conflict of research interests / bias” issue. Namely, if academics are spending a great deal of their time serving as board members or consultants for drug companies, then that means that they are not spending that time performing their academic duties. Academic science as a culture (both at medical education centers and non-medical universities) too often undermines the fact that professors, deans, and senior officials at teaching hospitals are all employed by institutions of education. Thus, academics have an obligation, in one capacity or another, to educate. This may mean teaching courses, overseeing curriculum development, directing medical education, or training graduate students and preparing postdocs for their careers, but in any case, there are other aspects of a career in academia - separate from scientific research - that must not be neglected.

    Thus, while I certainly can appreciate advantages to collaboration between academia and industry, I worry that there isn’t an equitable trade off when academics decide to simultaneously play for both teams. Indeed, it does come down to an issue of fair compensation. Opponents of the recent Partners HealthCare restrictions argue that the medical officials deserve fair compensation for their contributions to the companies, but I argue that monetary gains by those individuals cannot begin to compensate for the price that academic science as an institution is paying. Academia is losing its researchers’ time (away from the classroom, away from their students and junior researchers) and unbiased investigations to industry, while really not receiving anything in return. Perhaps groups like Partners HealthCare should not be so focused on regulating what industry can give to academics, but rather, they should look to limit what academics are giving up in the name of industry collaboration.


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