ACSH Releases Paper On Scientific "Conflicts of Interest"

The American Council on Science and Health has recently published an interesting analysis of an issue of potential importance to all MassTortDefense readers involved in the defense of significant product liability claims. See Bailey, Scrutinizing Industry-Funded Science: The Crusade Against Conflicts of Interest (ACSH 2008). The report can be obtained at  their site.

It is virtually impossible to litigate toxic torts or complex products liability litigation without the benefit of scientific experts. Indeed, most of today’s mass torts, whether they be in the drug or medical devices context, chemicals, or consumer products, implicate significant scientific questions on issues of product defect, warnings, specific causation, general causation, injury and damages. Novel claims such as medical monitoring turn as well on scientific issues such as risk levels, and the availability of scientific tests to early detect diseases.

Defendants in mass torts may face the reality of a gap or hole in the existing science, and confront the issue of whether to sponsor research to fill in the gaps.  Outside litigation, in the ordinary course of business, industry spends billions of dollars on research annually, generating scientific data related to their products' safety and efficacy. Within the court room, Daubert and Frye challenges to experts are a common, and important, feature of many such cases as courts seek to exercise a gate-keeping function to exclude junk science from the courtroom. In that context, as well as in cross examination of experts who are permitted to testify, the search for “bias” that may undermine the validity or credibility of opinions offered by the scientific experts is a crucial undertaking. Insulating one’s own experts from the reach of a bias attack, inoculating the finder of fact from the impact of a bias challenge, is often an important task for defense counsel.

But what is bias? And what should properly be viewed by the jury as a “connection” that fundamentally undermines a proffered expert opinion? As the new ACSH publication notes, for approximately a century, industry has been a powerful motivating force in the creation of new technology and the underwriting of scientific research. Yet, the last two decades have seen the development of a sweeping movement aimed at convincing everyone that any connection with industry taints research or the researcher, and also is aimed squarely at curtailing academic/industry (particularly biomedical) research collaborations and restricting membership on government scientific advisory boards from researchers in any way associated with industry.

Conflicts of interest activists assert that ties between researchers and industry are harming patients and consumers, undermining public trust in research, food safety and environmental regulation and boosting the costs of medicine and other products. The activists seek to demonize researchers whose work receives support from commercial sponsors, especially drug companies and the makers of synthetic chemicals used in agriculture, industry and consumer products. Significantly, it may be that the campaign to purge any experts with industry ties—no matter how slender—from advisory panels is chilling scientific debate and depriving regulators and the public of valuable insights. The problem here is that industry often hires the most qualified and experienced researchers for their advice and research acumen. Those are precisely the people who should be advising.

The paper notes that the intense focus on the alleged effects of financial conflicts of interest ignores how other conflicts can bias scientific research and advice to government agencies. People are influenced by all sorts of interests besides money. “Why should having once consulted with Pfizer or DuPont disqualify a scientist from serving on a government advisory board or writing a review article in a scientific journal, while being a lifelong member of Greenpeace does not? And if owning $10,000 in Dow stock represents a potential conflict of interest, surely $10,000 in funding from the Union of Concerned Scientists does too,” observes the ACSH report.

The paper argues that the current obsession with conflicts of interest is not merely wrong yet harmless. The activists have provoked the development of unnecessary and complex academic regulations and restrictions that are interfering with the speedy translation of scientific discoveries into effective treatments and new products and technologies. Instead of improving public health or making the environment safer and cleaner, the activities of conflict of interest activists are harming them. Researchers are abandoning universities and some are even leaving the country for settings in which academic-industry collaboration is encouraged rather than denigrated and penalized. Government agencies are being denied access to sound scientific advice, which distorts regulatory priorities, risks lives and raises costs.

That is not to say that no mistakes have been found, but private solutions including the advent of permanent online peer-review of scientific studies and the requirement by scientific journals that all clinical trials be registered go a long way to deal with such situations.

There appears to be very little evidence that alleged conflicts of interests are significantly distorting scientific research, harming consumers and patients, or misleading public policy. Most conflicts of interest activists clearly have prior strong ideological commitments against free markets and corporations. They view the conflicts of interest campaign as another tool to attack an enterprise which they already despise on other grounds. 

The paper concludes that this crusade is anti-industry ideology masquerading as a patient safety and consumer advocacy campaign.