November 26, 2022

Should Big Pharma fund bioethics?

Gadfly: a person who annoys or criticizes others in order to provoke them into action. There is no better word to describe Carl Elliott, a University of Minnesota bioethicist who is the profession’s most savage critic. In his column in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week, he took up a favourite theme: cosying up to the pharmaceutical industry. He complains that too many bioethicists are being funded by Big Pharma, which Dr Elliott tends to describe as a Mafia network.

Gadfly: a person who annoys or criticizes others in order to provoke them into action (Oxford English Dictionary). There is no better word to describe Carl Elliott, a University of Minnesota bioethicist who is probably the profession’s most savage critic. In his column in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week, he returned to a favourite theme: the dangers of cosying up to the pharmaceutical industry. He complains that too many bioethicists are being funded by Big Pharma, which Dr Elliott tends to describe as a Mafia network.

The target of his wrath is the 2012 Pfizer Fellowship in Bioethics, which was awarded to Lynn Schuchter of the University of Pennsylvania. The US$100,000-over-two-years fellowships are for investigation of ethical issues — including conflicts of interest. Dr Elliott helpfully points out that her project is sponsored by Ezekiel Emanuel, the new head of medical ethics at UPenn and a former adviser on health policy for the Obama Administration. He writes:

“If there is anything surprising about the upsurge in pharma-funded bioethics, it is that it has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in criminal behavior by the pharmaceutical industry: fraud, illegal marketing, ghostwriting, tax evasion, kickbacks, and bribery…

“Apparently, many bioethicists see nothing unseemly about sharing in profits generated by criminal activity. In fact, the bioethicists working with industry are often among the most prominent in the field. If anything, an association with the pharmaceutical industry has become a mark of professional success. What does this say about the future of bioethics?”

Dr Elliott’s on the pharmaceutical industry is clearly tendentious. But he is one of the few bioethicists to question the Olympian objectivity of the profession. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen?” It’s good to have a few guys like him around. 

Michael Cook
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Big Pharma
bioethics
conflict of interest