First, let me summarze the study's design. The authors sent a survey to senior administrators in the offices of sponsored research in 122 medical schools. They received responses from 107, for 91% response rate, excluding four schools that did no clinical research. They asked the administrators questions about provisions they would usually allow in contracts between their medical schools and corporate sponsors. The proportions who would allow some particular research practices follow:
- The sponsor will own the data produced by the research - 80%
- The sponsor will store the data and release portions to the investigator - 35%
- The investigators (whether at your site or any other site) are not permitted to alter the study design after the agreement is executed - 68%
- The sponsor is permitted to alter the study design after the agreement is executed - 62%
- The sponsor may prohibit individual site investigators from publishing manuscripts independently of the sponsor or group - 15%
- The sponsor may include its own statistical analysis in manuscripts - 24%
- The sponsor will write up the results for publication and the investigators may review the manuscript and suggest revisions - 50%
- While the trial is going on, the investigators may not discuss research results (including presentations at scientific meetings) with people not involved in the trial - 66%
- After the trial is over, the investigators may not discuss research results (including presentations at scientific meetings) until the sponsor consents to dissemination - 21%
- The terms of the clinical-trial agreement are confidential - 62%
- After the trial is over, the industry sponsor may prohibit investigators from sharing raw research data with third parties - 41%
(To see specific techniques that corporate sponsors may use to increase the likelihood that research produces the results they want, see our earlier post about the article entitled "Medical Journals Are an Extension of the Marketing Arm of Pharmaceutical Companies" by Richard Smith.)
To underline the context, in my experience, to do clinical research, most medical school faculty are strongly pressured by their institutions to obtain external funding to support this work. Those who cannot obtain funding within a few years of unemployment often have to find something else to do other than research. However, although faculty are expected to find sources of funding, it is generally the medical schools or academic medical centers, not the researchers, who negotiate research agreements, and although such agreements may bind faculty members, the money paid under their auspices generally goes directly to the faculty member's employer. Thus, individual researchers are under considerable pressure to find grant and contract funding, and to keep their financial sponsors happy, but must work under whatever contract provisions their employers negotiate.
The New England Journal of Medicine article clearly suggests that some medical schools allow researchers to be bound by agreements that allow the study's sponsor to manipulate study design, analysis, and interpretation to make it more likely that the results will be to the sponsor's liking. Since clinical trials enroll real human beings as subjects with the promise that the data they contribute, and the risks they run, will lead to valid scientific results, allowing such manipulation appears to not only likely to produce biased results, but also to be allow unethical exploitation of human subjects, and thus is in conflict with the medical school's scientific and humanitarian mission.
This is yet another illustration of leaders of powerful health care organizations acting in conflict with physicians' and medical researchers' core values.
One can only hope that publicizing such practices will lead to more ethical research, and less exploitation of human subjects.
By the way, I do not in any sense mean to blame the research administrators who must try to negotiate these contracts. Note that 69% of the administrators "perceived that competition for research funds created pressure on administrators to compromise on the language of the contract." 24% described the pressure as "great." I do blame the higher leadership of the medical schools for fostering a climate in which money is more important than doing valid, ethical research. This raises several important questions:
- Why don't some medical school leaders enforce clearer ethical standards for clinical research sponsored by industry?
- Are they so worried about getting the money, and so worried that they will lose contracts if they insist on ethical standards?
- Are they so steeped in the exteme relativism of the post-modernist university that they don't believe in such standards?
- Are they so used to violating their own mission to support political causes, as is documented again and again on the FIRE web-site, that they aren't troubled by violating their mission for economic reasons?