Sheldon Krimsky has been a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) at Tufts since 1974. Since then, he’s contributed extensively to the study of ethical considerations relative to biotechnology and other scientific fields. He was a consultant to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research and served on the National Institute of Health’s national Recombinant (“spliced”) DNA Advisory Committee. He has written 14 books on biotechnology and the possible health and environmental risks of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as well as their intersections between science and ethics.
One of those books is “Science in the Private Interest” (2003), a look at the world of industry-funded scientific research. Krimsky has written extensively on the subject. In 1979 — one of his first years as an untenured UEP professor at Tufts — he conducted a study that ultimately led him to his long career in studying the intrusion of corporate money into research and academia.
The Daily sat down with Krimsky to talk about the modern links between private funds and scientific research.
Tufts Daily (TD): Talk about how you got into researching the ethics of industry-funded science.
Sheldon Krimsky (SK): In 1979, I was overseeing a toxic contamination case; students were doing the studies and the investigation in Acton, Mass. I was a much younger, [untenured professor.] … It was a big case; it was the first case of a federal lawsuit against the chemical company [W.R. Grace and Company] under a new law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. That law stipulated that if a party was responsible for the contamination it didn’t matter that when they did it there was no law against it — no grandfathering or grandmothering.
The federal government was suing this corporation, and we were doing a study to find out what was going on. The vice president of this corporation went to visit the president of Tufts, telling him to fire me and stop the report from ever getting out. Fortunately, we had a president, Jean Mayer, who understood academic freedom. Also, W.R. Grace had never given money to Tufts — they didn’t promise to build a building or anything like that. And it occurred to me how important it was to have a firewall between people who do research and people who have a financial interest in the outcome of the research.
TD: Relating to the scientific community in the United States, how did those private-sector research links begin to change over time?
SK: In the…middle 1980s, the biotech industry began to emerge. Because of some laws that were passed, corporations were investing in universities; they were putting money into universities. And if you were a university researcher with federal funding and you hit it big — made a discovery — the government said you can keep the intellectual property, form a relationship with a company and share the resources, share the money, the patents [and] the wealth.
So there was an enormous amount of funding going into universities, beyond biotech, and some of the faculty members started their own companies, and then there was collaboration [and] partnerships between the companies they started and their own research. There was a lot of stuff going on [with] very little transparency — nobody knew what was happening.
In mid-1985, ‘86, the first journal said we’re going to have transparency [and] have faculty disclose their financial interests when they publish a paper … It was the New England Journal of Medicine. It was a world class journal … That was a big move because people never expected that scientists would ever have to reveal their financial interests — because they were scientists.
That got me interested because I was interested in biotechnology, and I started to do a series of studies about the relationship between scientists when they were working in certain fields and the outcome of their research and how their research may have been affected by the external funding they get.
TD: How are these links problematic?
SK: [In 2006,] we did a study of one particular document…the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental [Disorders]. Every psychiatrist and psychologist that gets third party payments for their treatments has to fill out a category in the DSM about what their treatment is for.
We did the first study of the DSM that showed the relationship between the people who developed the categories of mental illness with the pharmaceutical industry. There was a strong relationship between those categories and the availability of medical therapies — pills. So if you can come up with a category that matches a pill, that’s a lot of money for the pharmaceutical industry. Until we did the study, nobody knew just what relationships occurred between the people who developed the categories and the industry. We did that study, and you could say it went viral internationally.
The American Psychiatric Association decided that in the next issue of the DSM…they would release the financial interests of the panel members who set the categories.
We did a follow up study [on if things] have changed, and we found out…that in the next issue of the DSM…there were more conflicts of interests, so it hadn’t reduced the number of conflicts of interests, but they were all listed, for the first time.
TD: So the fact that financial interests are public doesn’t necessarily reduce those links.
SK: It hasn’t made faculty members say, “hey, I don’t want my name out there in the public.” Now as far as Tufts University is concerned, Tufts has a pretty strong policy about certain aspects of corporate funding, [which] has to do with maintaining the autonomy of the scientist. [Other] universities would allow their faculty to sign contracts with corporations that gave the corporations the right to veto publication of an article, if they didn’t think the article was going to be in their financial interest or to help shape the article to sort of guide the researcher into doing the study that they wanted. I’m pleased to say that Tufts has taken a very strong position against that.
What we proposed — and I wasn’t the only one… when a drug company wanted to get its drugs evaluated, they would give it to an agency of government. The agency of government would then find an academic source or professional person to do the studies…And then the data would be available in the public domain, and then they would give the data back to the corporation. And if the data were good, the corporation can apply for a license to manufacture the drug. That’s not the way it happens.
TD: You also served on an advisory committee on recombinant DNA and a national commission on Bioethics. What are some of the main ethical dilemmas relative to that?
SK: From the very beginning, the issue was: Could you take a gene from one system, put it into a new system and make the new system virulent or dangerous? So that was the early concern … I think today the preeminent issue is whether we should allow scientists to genetically modify the human germline — that is, fertilized eggs — and to create babies, like Gattaca (1997).
TD: If there’s a single standard for what people find desirable in a child, then we might lose homogeneity?
SK: Exactly, and we don’t even know if it’s safe; we know we can do it with animals; we know we can clone animals — surely if we can clone sheep and dogs, the chances are we probably can clone human beings, and the next question is, “should we?”
Of course, GMOs, genetically modified foods, is probably another huge controversy … They’re going to be voting on this very soon in Congress. Vermont voted to label, but if Congress votes against it then the Vermont law will be meaningless.
TD: There are some ethical discussions that I’ve heard about GMOs being the key to providing food as the climate changes.
SK: The proponents of GMOs think it’s a golden goose. It’ll solve world hunger; it’ll be able to solve climate change issues, all kinds of things. So far we don’t have any evidence that any of this is true.
Most of these things are patented, and the patents have all kinds of controls on them — they don’t even allow farmers to save seeds. So there’s a whole range of things that occur in the GMO culture that do not in the more traditional agricultural culture, and then there’s the question of whether or not GMOs are consistent with sustainable agriculture, with an agriculture for the future.
The maybe seven huge divisions in the phylogenetic scale; you can go anywhere, different kingdoms, take genes from one and put [them] in another, so you can go far afield and mix the genes up … Is that always going to give us a better product?