Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Political Incorrectness of Discussing Conflicts of Interest in Medical Academia

From today's Boston Globe,

Tufts University has withdrawn an invitation for a top aide to US Senator Charles E. Grassley to give the keynote speech at a conference on conflicts of interest in medicine and research, leading one conference organizer to pull out and question the university's commitment to academic freedom.

The University-wide Committee on Ethics rescinded the invitation on March 13, according to e-mails obtained by the Globe. The messages said top Tufts officials refused to allow other administrators to be panelists at the meeting if Grassley's aide spoke, saying it was inappropriate to do so while Grassley is investigating ties between a Tufts professor and the drug industry.

The senator, a Republican from Iowa, sent a letter on Feb. 17 to the president of Tufts, Lawrence S. Bacow, requesting detailed information on the relationship between a 'Dr. Boucher' and the pharmaceutical industry, including the amount and dates of all industry payments between January 2006 and December 2008. Dr. Helen Boucher is an infectious diseases specialist at the Tufts medical school.

Spokeswoman Christine Fennelly first said in an e-mail that when Grassley declined the invitation, 'it was decided to refocus the symposium on a smaller scale, where the panelists would be faculty from Tufts University and affiliated faculty from Tufts Medical Center.'

Later, when told that Krimsky's e-mails explicitly said the speaking offer was rescinded, she said the invitation to Grassley's aide had been withdrawn. 'Indeed . . . the administration felt it prudent to not engage someone from the Senator's office while we respond to the Senator's inquiry,' she wrote.

One only has to browse the FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) web-site to see the sad state of free speech and academic freedom in American universities. Most of the cases they discuss seem to involve barriers to presenting politically incorrect viewpoints on campus. FIRE has presented several cases involving dis-invitation of speakers with such views.

On the other hand, on Health Care Renewal we have discussed our share of cases involving free speech and academic freedom in academic medicine. Most of these cases seem to involve barriers to presenting research results that turn out unfavorable to vested financial interests, particularly interests served by the promotion of particular health care products, like drugs or devices, or services.

This case appears to be something of a hybrid. Like a number of cases discussed on the FIRE web-site, it involves the dis-invitation of a campus speaker whose viewpoint might not fit with that of the powers that be on campus. However, instead of causing offense because of his political positions, Mr Thacker seemed to cause offense because he has been involved in investigating conflicts of interest affecting medical academics. Thus, it seems that discussing such conflicts of interest has become politically incorrect. This seems to be a fairly blatant instantiation of the anechoic effect.

See also comments by Dr Daniel Carlat on the Carlat Psychiatry Blog.

ADDENDUM (31 March, 2009) - also see comments on the Effect Measure Blog.

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