The UK Times Higher Education Supplement just published a feature on the unhappy fate of academic, including academic medical whistleblowers.
Whistleblowers in universities can hit the national headlines for shining light on issues of public interest, only for their careers to end up in very dark places.
Some of higher education’s most prominent whistleblowers paint a bleak picture about the impact on their subsequent careers. They talk about being persecuted by colleagues after coming forward. But even after leaving their jobs, some believe they still suffer a legacy. One talks about being 'effectively blackballed' from ever working again in higher education.
For other whistleblowers, exile is self-enforced.
It is noteworthy that the graphic for the article showed a whistleblower with a ball and chain, but the ball is in the shape of a whistle.
Summary - The Blumsohn - Actonel - Procter and Gamble - Sheffield University Case
The article focused on the case of Dr Aubrey Blumsohn, which we discussed recently, and have posted about since 2005 (here). For all relevant posts, look here.
The Times provided a good summary. It is worth quoting it here, as a reminder of a very important case which has had far too few echoes.
[The] case began in 2002, when he was working in the research unit led by Richard Eastell, professor of bone metabolism at Sheffield. The unit was researching the effects on patients of Procter & Gamble’s anti-osteoporosis drug Actonel.
Blumsohn raised concerns about abstracts for conference papers submitted by P&G, under his primary authorship, but without the firm having granted him full access to the drug trial data.
His concerns were first raised with senior colleagues and then reported in Times Higher Education in 2005.
The data analysis for the research was carried out by P&G, which paid for the research and which did not release key data to Eastell and Blumsohn. According to Blumsohn, this prevented honest publication of research.
After coming forward, Blumsohn has previously said, his other research work was used as the basis for a series of research grant applications that Eastell sponsored and signed off for a PhD student, without acknowledging Blumsohn’s input and despite his objections.
In 2005, he told the university that he was speaking to the media after losing faith in its internal systems for dealing with such allegations. He was subsequently suspended and told by Sheffield that he could lose his job over alleged 'conduct incompatible with the duties of office', including 'briefing journalists' and 'distributing information, including a Times Higher article, to third parties with apparent intent to cause embarrassment'.
He later reached a settlement with the university and it dropped all disciplinary charges. However, he left the university in 2006.
Blumsohn says of what happened afterwards: 'I withdrew from medicine completely, I withdrew from academia and ultimately withdrew my medical registration as well.'
Given the impact on his career, does Blumsohn regret coming forward with his concerns? 'I had to do that,' he says. 'As a scientist, I couldn’t just go along with having my name attached to manipulated publications, based on secret data ghost-analysed by pharmaceutical companies.'
Could Sheffield have dealt with his concerns more effectively? 'I don’t know how Sheffield could have done better, or indeed how any medical school could have done,' Blumsohn replies.
He clarifies: 'The problem these days is that some parts of universities – most notably medical schools but some other parts as well – have so many conflicts of interest and financial imperatives guiding what they do, I’m not sure other universities would necessarily have behaved differently from Sheffield. When millions of pounds are at stake both in private fees for academics and university funding, and a pharmaceutical company is wanting you to dance, the pressure to go along and to get staff to remain quiet is overwhelming.'
A few comments are in order. While universities appear to be places of free speech and open discussion, note that Sheffield apparently could punish Dr Blumsohn simply for talking to journalists, but particularly for simply saying things that might embarrass university leaders. So university leaders wish not to be embarrassed seems to trump free speech and academic freedom.
Second, Dr Blumsohn rightly pointed out that the issue was really scientific integrity, not embarrassment. He tried to stop what he perceived as manipulation of clinical research by a pharmaceutical company to support its vested interests in selling a particular drug. Such manipulation threatened scientific integrity, and ultimately threatened patients' health.
Third, Dr Blumsohn also rightly pointed out in retrospect that what university managers really seemed to fear was not just personal embarrassment, but curtailment of money flows from industry to their institution that made them look good, and presumably become more wealthy.
Few Echoes in the Discussion of Whether the Former Procter and Gamble Executive on Whose Watch the Affair Occurred Should be US Veterans Affairs Secretary
As we discussed here, a top executive at Procter and Gamble whose remit at the time the affair occurred seemed to include Actonel and research related to it was nominated to run the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and hence the whole VA health system. Only two blogs, including this one, raised the issue of the Blumsohn - Actonel - Procter and Gamble - Sheffield University affair as relevant. There was no other public discussion of this connection. The former Procter and Gamble executive was confirmed, and now runs the Department of Veterans Affairs.
This is another example of how leaders of big health care organizations remain unaccountable for their organizations' misdeeds. The lack of any mainstream discussion of the Blumsohn - Actonel - Procter and Gamble - Sheffield University affair in connection to the VA nomination demonstrate the anechoic effect. Even the most determined whistleblowers often do not get the public notice they deserve, and their revelations do not have the effects they ought to have, even after the whistleblowers have paid a very high price to try to spark public discussion.
So anyone thinking about trying to get public notice for some fact or issue that threatens the powers that be will think twice, both about the potential downsides to the whistleblower, and the potential ineffectiveness of these attempts.
In the past two weeks, I have heard in confidence about three stories in which discussion of issues that might offend the powers that be, specifically, the leaders of big health care organizations, has been suppressed. I am convinced that for every Dr Aubrey Blumsohn, there are dozens who are aware of deception, other unethical conduct, even crime and corruption that could harm patients and patient care, but are afraid to speak out.
Of course, as long as these issues remain hidden, the damage to patients and the public's health continues to be done.
We clearly need changes in public policy to protect whistleblowers and foster free speech about important issues in academics and health care. We need health care professionals, health care researchers, health care policy makers, and those among the public who care about health care and health care need to organize to support free speech and academic freedom. Otherwise, the anechoic effect will continue to befog all of health care.
Hat tip to Dr Carl Elliott writing for the Fear and Loathing in Bioethics blog.