‘Your Silence or Your Job?’ Newsmaker Olivieri speaks at York

The following is an except from the abstract of researcher and hematologist Nancy Olivieri’s recent Brownbag Research Seminar series talk, entitled “Your Silence or Your Job? Obligations and Obstacles for the Medical Researcher in an Era of Corporate Science”. Olivieri received international attention when she was involved in a dispute with Apotex Inc. after she had publicized her findings from a clinical drugs trial for the company. She spoke at York on Jan. 7.

Not only the Canadian public, but every Canadian researcher, should be increasingly concerned about the implications of for-profit companies, the tight linking of federal research money to industry and the incautious licensing of drugs and food. Medical research in publicly-funded institutions, which provide expertise and infrastructure, is increasingly supported by private industry, which controls and profits from what is studied: creating a situation [consumer advocate] Ralph Nader has described as a “privatization of profits and socialization of losses”.

The pharmaceutical industry now finances most of Canada’s drug research and determines the direction of much basic academic research. Some traditional scientific values, such as autonomous research dedicated to public service, are fast becoming an anachronism. Modern researchers may adapt their conduct and interpretations to the corporate funding provided; those who do not so adapt are likely to suffer great hardship for refusing to do so.

An ethical duty for all researchers to disclose side effects in industry-sponsored research exists – even when such findings are adverse to industry. Yet, there exists little protection for the individual who does disclose adverse findings against the wishes of the company or academic institution: retaliation toward so-called “whistleblowers” usually derails careers, an outcome that is rarely reversible, despite later vindication.

Omission, or suppression, of data is not rare in scientific research. Some of these practices may have a direct effect on patient morbidity and mortality. Researchers under demands to publish are considerably pressured to deliver “new”, “positive” results: for example, that a new drug being tested is superior to an old drug, or to placebo. At the least, an unconscious bias in favour of any new drug may emerge.

Moreover, in drug company-sponsored research, many researchers believe that the company “owns” the data, and that one can do nothing to disclose research findings if refused permission to publish. Furthermore, many scientists collaborating with industry may be persuaded that whilst public accountability is one thing in the context of medical care, in research, increasingly being driven by a profit motive, there is a lessening of ethical responsibility.

If the public cannot rely upon the integrity of its scientific community, in whom can it repose trust? If the scientific community forfeits public trust, can it expect that the public will continue to support research in universities and hospitals?

The Brownbag Research Seminars 2002-2003 series is organized by Prof. Luigi Bianchi through the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies School of Analytical Studies & Information Technology and the Committee on Research and Teaching.