Sheldon Krimsky, Science in the Private Interest. Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research?, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

Sheldon Krimsky’s latest book will probably shock those readers who still think of scientific research conducted at non-profit universities as a disinterested activity, exclusively motivated by the pursuit of truth. Among those potentially astonished audiences, you should count most European scholars and, quite likely, a vast majority of American citizens, to whom this book is mainly addressed. It is not that they should care about how much money is being made by an elite of biomedical scientists based at major American universities; the shock comes at the discovery of how this financial incentive might bias their academic behavior, preventing them from cooperating with other researchers (after all, after all, we believe this to be the very purpose of university life) and, more menacingly, influencing their decisions when participating in public committees assembled to assess the efficacy of a drug or therapy, or enrolling us for one of their clinical tests.

Krimsky gathers in eight chapters a significant number of well documented cases which provide ample evidence of the many ways in which biomedical corporations have been conditioning university research since the early 1980s. Funding in exchange for patents constitutes probably the best known issue, but the details of the contracts regulating this transfer are not widely publicized. After a couple of introductory chapters that set the tone of the analysis, the following two explore an array of examples of these sort of agreements, all of which suggest that transforming scientific knowledge into proprietary information constrains the free circulation of ideas that should prevail in academia –according to our classical lore. Indeed, the public discussion of our individual results is still required by most philosophers as a pre-requisite for attaining the status of scientific knowledge. Yet, as Krimsky discusses in chapter 5, most knowledge transfer agreements between universities and corporations restrict access to these results or impose delays on their publication.

Corporate influence might also be felt in Federal advisory boards, in which leading scientists are invited to participate in their capacity as disinterested experts. Yet, as the evidence compiled in chapters 6-9 attests, they might also be directly funded in various ways by biomedical companies whose interest may be put at stake in those commissions. It is often difficult to recruit qualified scientists that are not listed in the consultive boards of one or another corporation, receive from them personal grants or donations for their laboratories or fall under any of the clauses of the federal regulations designed to prevent conflicts of interests within those committees. It might also happen that the scientist is also the entrepreneur, having his own financial interest in the success of the experiments he is conducting. To discount this possible source of bias, it is not unreasonable to expect this piece of information to be disclosed to the readers of his papers –and to the patients on which he might be testing his results. Again, Krimsky shows that it is becoming increasingly difficult for journals and hospitals alike to enforce transparency clauses of this sort.

The final two chapters of this book explore alternative patterns of behavior in academia that would preserve the ideal of universities as the locus of research in the public interest. Krimsky claims that the evidence presented calls for an open debate on the role of American universities, on the basis of which an adequate regulation of their interaction with the corporate world would hopefully emerge. Krimsky’s choice, though not thoroughly articulated in his book for the sake of informativeness, would be quite drastic: “by accepting the premise that conflicts of interest in universities must be subtly managed, rather than prohibited or prevented, nothing less that the public interest function of the American academic enterprise is at stake” (p. 230).

The book is certainly a very readable starting point to open a debate that should not be postponed in the United States, and might help European audiences to look ahead to what it is likely to be a not so distant future. It might be argued, however, that this debate could also benefit from a more ample use of the different approaches that have been developed among science scholars in the last twenty years. Some of them show, for instance, that various interests other than truth have been pervasive in science throughout its entire history. Krimsky assumes an ideal of scientificity that, attractive as it may be, might have been never fully realized. However, the problems he is raising are so serious that it is worth discussing whether it might still help us.

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