Monday, August 14, 2006

Does Disclosure Mean Only the Second Tier Will Play?

A former president of the National Academy of Sciences has ridden to the support of the "trust us" disclosure and conflict-of-interest policies of the California stem cell agency.

Bruce Alberts, professor of biochemistry at UC San Francisco as well as president of the NAS from 1993 to 2005, said that scientists who make de facto decisions on requests for millions of dollars should not be required to disclose their financial holdings.

Writing in the San Jose Mercury News, he said CIRM has taken "strong measures" to avoid conflicts of interest. Alberts declared:
"Scientists view serving on (grant) review committees as a public service, and many of the best will decline to participate in institute reviews if their private financial information is to be made available for everyone in the world to see. California then runs the risk of wasting critical resources by not making the very best decisions on how to make these important investments for the public good."
Alberts does not address the issue of whether there is a significant conflict of interest problem involving medical researchers generally. But we all know of the continuing string of stories about researchers whose ethics are suspect. More recently, the Wall Street Journal wrote about just how favoritism creeps in and how researchers seem "immune" to feelings of conflicts of interest. The Journal said,
"Studies of psychiatric drugs by researchers with a financial conflict of interest -- receiving speaking fees, owning stock, or being employed by the manufacturer -- are nearly five times as likely to find benefits in taking the drugs as studies by researchers who don't receive money from the industry, according to a review of 162 studies published last year in the American Journal of Psychiatry."
We acknowledge that some scientists may beg off service on the CIRM grant review committees simply for privacy or philosophical reasons. But does that mean only the second tier will serve? Perhaps that is a question to be asked of the 29 persons who oversee the $3 billion California stem cell agency, all of whom must publicly disclose their financial information. One of those persons is the vice chancellor for medical affairs at UC San Francisco. He is also Alberts' boss.

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