Harvard, Heal Thyself (Why Journalism Matters)
Harvard Medical School is exactly the kind of private institution on which the public welfare depends. The research and training it conducts have a ripple effect not only throughout this country but in much of the world. With its unmatched prestige and resources, however, come equivalent responsibilities. If the school allows its faculty to be corrupted by greed and payola, then society suffers as well.
No doubt the easiest, albeit not the only, way to undermine Harvard’s mission would be to invite the pharmaceutical industry to offer secret bribes to its faculty in order to ensure that their research and teaching reflected not their scholarly judgment but the profit motives of these mega-corporations. This may, however, be just what is happening. (It certainly appears that way.) In 2008 Harvard earned an F from the American Medical Student Association for its lax conflict-of-interest standards on accepting Big Pharma cash, while the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford and Columbia won A’s and B’s. And back in March, members of its student body–many of whom were surreptitiously photographed by a representative of the Pfizer Corporation–demonstrated against the school’s administration with the intent of “exposing and curtailing the industry influence in their classrooms and laboratories, as well as in Harvard’s 17 affiliated teaching hospitals and institutes.”
The New York Times‘s Duff Wilson spent more than a month researching the issue and found plenty of fire to go with the smoke. He discovered that roughly “1,600 of 8,900 professors and lecturers have reported to the dean that they or a family member had a financial interest in a business related to their teaching, research or clinical care. The reports show 149 with financial ties to Pfizer and 130 with Merck.” Just one Harvard professor’s disclosure listed forty-seven company affiliations, but the school’s rules do not require specificity regarding speaking or consulting fees, other than meaningless categories such as “more than $30,000,” making it impossible to determine who is buying what. Nor, according to the Times, are there “limits on companies’ making outright gifts to faculty–free meals, tickets, trips or the like.” On an institutional level, $8 million from sleep research companies created three new endowed professorships. Other companies are creating faculty prizes, subsidies and so forth. A first-year student told Wilson, “Before coming here, I had no idea how much influence companies had on medical education. And it’s something that’s purposely meant to be under the table, providing information under the guise of education.”