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Is Conflict of Interest An Addiction?
December 19, 2012 - 12:22pm

It was only a matter of time before a prominent scientist with conflicts of interest, Sidney Gilman of University of Michigan, became implicated in insider trading. Insider trading is the extreme end of what we might think of as a continuum of consequences that escalates from conflicting roles as they themselves increase in magnitude from advising or speaking to significant financial support to clinical trials and equity interests. So on one end there might be selective, distorted, or never-published findings, and on the far end insider trading, with ghostwriting, failures of informed consent, human subjects protections, fraudulent results, and other behaviors in between. Like most consequences of conflict of interest, insider trading arises from a relationship of conflicting roles—in this case, an expert and an investor or trial funder—and is prevalent in the health care industries of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

We know that conflict of interest in science is “pervasive and problematic”—it’s an epidemic born of minimizing, discounting, and rationalizing away its dangers. In this sense, conflict of interest is its own variant of a drug culture, where there is constant reassurance among the conflicted that there is nothing wrong with it (this language of assurance, as I call it, is found in the conflict of interest policies of many major research universities), and we see both the need for ego-gratification and the denial of its negative effects on authenticity and trust that characterizes other kinds of addictive behavior.  The potential destructiveness to reputation, and therefore survival, is so great that there seems to be no other explanation, particularly when for the majority of people—including Dr. Gilman—the amounts involved are, to anyone who understands the asset value of reputation, relatively small. It’s irrational.

What will it take for universities to say, enough already? They have been very lucky—or very effective—in staying out of the spotlight on conflict of interest scandals. The irony here is that institutions that have every reason to stand up for the integrity of science and the scientific record, and that are intimately connected to much of the scientific activity of their faculty, seem themselves unwilling to “just say no.”  Beyond the individuals we so often read about, are they addicted too? And when will their own luck or protection run out?

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