December 7, 2023


Scientists are too ready to jump to the defence of wayward colleagues and to accept a lack of transparency in public debate, according to the deputy editor of the magazine The Scientist. Dr Ivan Oransky was commenting on a recent controversy. More than a hundred clinical researchers publicly criticised an expos? of conflict of interest by their colleagues in the Los Angeles Times by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. They contended that David Willman’s allegations that a senior researcher at the National Institutes of Health, Thomas Walsh, had manipulated a trial to give it more chance of success were irresponsible. They would tarnish the image of drug development and could deter patients from participating in clinical trials.

But Dr Oransky points out that Walsh had already been found guilty of serious misconduct for accepting US$100,000 from 25 drug companies without reporting it. That fact was not mentioned in the scientists’ denunciation.

Scientists also complained that the government had been heavy-handed in jailing plague researcher Thomas Butler for two years for shipping the plague bacterium to Tanzania without the necessary paperwork, putting FedEx employees at risk. “But I don’t think scientists want to have [a] debate,” Oransky says. “Instead, they want to praise Walsh’s and Butler’s research as saving the lives of innocent children… and suggest they’re above the law. And I just don’t see how that attitude strengthens clinical trials.”

Oransky argues that scientists fail to acknowledge their own failings. “What is going to hurt clinical research and patients is the continued lack of transparency by a number of researchers… When someone hides something, I want to know why. If there’s nothing wrong with financial relationships between researchers and drug companies, why not disclose them?”