Action Potential

Big Pharma and academia becoming more and more cozy

I recently attended the Alzheimer’s Disease Keystone meeting in Keystone, CO and became more acutely aware of something than ever before: academia and drug companies really like one another. Sure, the latter always loved the former, since collaborating with university-based scientists often made the publications arising from the private sector look a little more legit. On the contrary, the reciprocity in this relationship has not always been there. There is without a doubt some sub-disciplinary differences in this complex relationship, but in the basic science departments that I lurked around, if you were associated with a company (or worse, left academia for a position there, succumbing to the power of the Dark Side), there was always talk of whether or not you could be trusted. Because companies need publications to prove the legitimacy of their product, right? And the legitimacy determines how much money everyone makes, right? So with such conflicts of interest, could the scientist, or the data being produced by these people, be trusted?

That about sums up the position I feel a lot of academics have taken in the past. But before some commenter blows a gasket defending the ethics of research in the private sector, please understand that I am not trying to question the moral fabric of anyone holding a pipetteman in one hand and stock options in the other. I am simply reporting what my impression was from my peers in university department(s) and from other “non-profit” scientists with whom I associated. Obviously, the stereotype I am describing is flawed, but it is (was?) still one of those non-PC opinions (sometimes not so) secretly held by many an academic. But after what I observed at this AD meeting, I think that I can officially say that the hatchet has been buried and apparently, if you don’t have a slide in your talk disclosing your potential private sector conflicts, then your lab is either financially-challenged, or you are a taxonomist. Why the big change? That’s easy — money. With the ever-widening gap between the number of NIH proposal submissions and the funding line, academic labs, now more than ever, need to find additional sources of money. It’s funny how being broke will make a person change his/her mind about something…

Philanthropic entities, like the Simons Foundation, McKnight Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, have in the past, and are currently supporting, academic neuroscience research in a variety of ways. However, this source of funding is still not large enough to significantly shrink the gap. Enter Big Pharma, and little biotech, for that matter. The relationship between company and academic lab can take a variety of forms; from collaborative reagent testing/sharing, to complete underwriting of whole parts of the academic lab’s program. At the meeting, I talked to PIs, post-docs and students regarding this relationship and everyone seemed to be extremely comfortable and happy with the arrangement. The companies, to their credit, see an obvious need, and are enthusiastically filling it. How enthusiastically? In one instance, a company that was collaborating with an academic lab flew a representative to this AD meeting, if only to hang up a poster for the researcher and remove it after the session was over. These previously-uneasy bedfellows are really not so much anymore. Certainly, there are fields that do not have strong ties to industry, but based on my conversations and observations, those unfortunate researchers tragically working in such areas are not avoiding contact out of elitist machismo, or fear of some “unholy” moral corruption, but rather, because they just haven’t found a good “hook” to convince a company their lab’s work could reap products or information that could eventually improve the company’s bottom line.

I don’t really see too many people raising an eyebrow anymore when they are told about a certain academic leaving for industry. The stigma is just not there, like it was when I was a graduate student (when I sat as the student representative on my graduate school admissions board, there was often talk of accepting only students who we could predict were more likely to do something “productive” with their future, and not throw away their education by going into the private sector). In addition, companies, more than ever, are encouraging their scientist employees to work on projects that are not necessarily related to specific product development goals, but rather have basic inquiry as the motivating factor (like at Genentech). In my opinion, by loosening the scope of the research they choose to fund, companies place themselves in a better position to attract elite scientists. These strong thinkers bring obvious intellectual capital to the table, assisting with the company’s product development, and are simultaneously kept happy because of the intellectual freedom to pursue other projects. This can only enrich and grow the entire creative research process within the company. So, for the moment, the strong marriage between academia and industry seems to be good for science as a whole. But how long will the honeymoon last?


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    bsci said:

    You hit on two things here: (1) The removal of the stigma for PhDs going into industry and (2) The removal of the stigma for taking industry money.

    For the first one, I think academics have finally started to see that there aren’t enough academic jobs to hire all science PhDs and someone entering industry is doing an interesting job that uses their skills. This was explicit in my program’s training and more than half the students don’t go on to academic jobs.

    For the second point, industry money just isn’t inherently bad. Especially at the basic science level, it is much cheaper to pay an academic money to study the basics than to have an large in-house group working on stuff with no short-term monetary benefit. This is a win-win situation for everyone.

    Paying for drug testing is a more ethically complex. It seems there are some ad hoc rules one what is or is not ok, but no one has really worked to define clear boundaries.