March 3, 2024

Should bioethicists accept industry funding?

Industry-funded bioethics articles should not be published by professional journals, a prominent American bioethicist argues in The Lancet. Carl Elliott, of the University of Minnesota, says that mere disclosure of financial interests by his colleagues is unlikely to do away with conflicts of interest. This approach has not succeeded in eliminating bias amongst clinicians — research shows that doctors who accept gifts are still more likely to prescribe drugs from a generous benefactor, even if they do not believe they have been influenced.

Articles on the ethics of stem-cell research have been funded by Geron, Elliott says, and the ethics of placebo-controlled trials for mood-altering drugs, has been funded by antidepressant manufacturers. “Disclosure policies raise a red flag and should be retained, but they do nothing to eliminate the real problem of industry funding, which is not secrecy but influence-peddling… If bioethics scholarship is to retain any measure of independence and credibility, it will need to take much stronger measures.”

Dr Elliott’s high-minded campaign to purify bioethics of the taint of undue influence has outraged some of his colleagues. Glenn McGee, editor of the American Journal of Bioethics (which was roundly criticised by Elliott), complained that “the notion that in taking funding from industry I or my colleagues became tools of industry is mean-spirited innuendo and nothing more.”

The real problem is quite different, says McGee: “a well developed neo-conservative bioethics ‘movement’ now, a virtually unadulterated tool of the Bush administration that has most recently busied itself with apologetics for the Bush administration position on stem cell research.”

The problem of industry ties to bioethics is clearly not a simple one. As McGee points out, medical schools rely heavily on industry funding, so even Elliott’s work has been indirectly funded by industry. And he asserts that he cannot think of a single instance of corporate funding corrupting bioethicists’ judgment — with the possible exception of Republican donations to bolster the case for keeping Terri Schiavo alive.