In June, the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most respected medical journals, made a startling announcement. The editors declared that they were dropping their policy stipulating that authors of review articles of medical studies could not have financial ties to drug companies whose medicines were being analyzed.
The reason? The journal could no longer find enough independent experts. Drug company gifts and “consulting fees” are so pervasive that in any given field, you cannot find an expert who has not been paid off in some way by the industry. So the journal settled for a new standard: Their reviewers can have received no more than $10,000 from companies whose work they judge. Isn’t that comforting?
This announcement by the New England Journal of Medicine is just the tip of the iceberg of a scientific establishment that has been pervasively corrupted by conflicts of interest and bias, throwing doubt on almost all scientific claims made in the biomedical field.
The standard announced in June was only for the reviewers. The actual authors of scientific studies in medical journals are often bought and paid for by private drug companies with a stake in the scientific results. While the NEJM and some other journals disclose these conflicts, others do not. Unknown to many readers is the fact that the data being discussed was often collected and analyzed by the maker of the drug involved in the test. An independent 1996 study found that 98 percent of scientific papers based on research sponsored by corporations promoted the effectiveness of a company’s drug. By comparison, 79 percent of independent studies found that a new drug was effective. This corruption reaches from the doctors prescribing a drug to government review boards to university research centers.
There have long been worries about the advertising and promotional gifts given to doctors to influence which drugs they prescribe. But it turns out that even deeper financial ties extend to the medical experts setting nationwide professional guidelines for treating conditions ranging from heart disease to diabetes. Surveys have found that nine out of ten experts writing such guidelines have financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, yet those ties are almost never disclosed in the treatment guidelines, which are often published in medical journals and endorsed by medical societies.
The Food and Drug Administration, for reasons similar to those of the medical journals, routinely allows researchers with ties to the industry to sit on drug approval advisory committees. In many cases, half the panelists on such committees have a financial stake in the outcome, through links to the drug manufacturer or to a competitor.
Increasingly, the industry has converted academic research centers into subsidiaries of the companies. The billions of dollars of academic government funding essentially pays to flush out negative results, while private industry gets to profit from any successful result. Industry now provides 7 percent of university research funding, but they are manipulating the system to gain a far more substantial benefit. At the University of California at Berkeley, Novartis agreed to pay $25 million to the campus in exchange for the first right to patent a range of basic plant research produced by the university.