June 25, 2007

Alarm growing over industry financing of academic research

Lawsuits by firefighters against siren manufacturers are sounding another type of alarm – over academic experts with an axe to grind.

Siren manufacturers are using research scientists as expert witnesses to defend themselves against thousands of firefighters claiming that sirens damaged their hearing. The industry’s audiology experts testify in court about research showing that siren noise exposure does not increase one’s risk for hearing loss.

But controversy is building over these scientists’ failure to disclose their financial links to the industries they study.

For example, audiology expert William Clark, Ph.D. of the Washington University Medical School was being paid as an expert witness while he was conducting his research into sirens and noise loss; the siren company even helped him to collect his data. Clark has also received money from the railroad and mining industries.

Such financial ties to industry are common in some research fields. A lengthy expose in the Wall Street Journal of June 22 explains how scientific journals’ failure to require full disclosure allows these ties to stay hidden from public view.

The controversy brewing in the current case of Lempa v. Federal Signal Corp. echoes concerns a few years back about the lead industry’s influence over research and public policy.

In a bold example of the fox guarding the chicken coop, the lead industry in 2002 attempted to stack a federal advisory panel on childhood lead poisoning with scientists the industry had paid as expert witnesses and consultants.

Lead exposure is widely recognized as a dangerous threat to children’s health. Yet one of the industry-nominated scientists had stepped far outside of the scientific mainstream to testify in a legal case over lead paint that there was no established link between lead exposure and cognitive problems in children.

Of course, the influence of the lead, mining, railroad, and siren industries in academia pales in comparison to pharmaceutical corporations’ pervasive influence over medical research.

Drug companies now fund up to 90 percent of clinical trials for certain classes of medications. A new study by researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) found that when a drug company pays for research, the study’s results are 20 times more likely to favor that product. (The study is available on-line at medicine.plosjournals.org.)

Meanwhile, as pointed out in the New York Times of June 13, the training of doctors has been virtually handed over to the pharmaceutical industry as a vehicle for drug marketing. Half of all continuing medical education courses in the United States are now paid for by drug companies, at an annual cost of $1.12 billion.

“Because pharmaceutical companies now set much of the agenda for what doctors learn about drugs, crucial information about potential drug dangers is played down, to the detriment of patient care,” notes the Times article.