October 7, 2008

C.U. Supports Disclosure of Univ. Research Funding

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“Cornell is very transparent about its grants. We have no reason to be secretive about [them],” said Prof. Ron Harris-Warrick, neurobiology and behavior, at a time when researchers are being challenged by the federal government for failing to disclose ties to drug companies.
Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Chair of the Senate Finance Committee Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) confronted about 20 universities across the nation, including Brown, Harvard and Stanford for failing to publicize additional grants obtained from drug makers. In March, the issue hit close to home when The New York Times uncovered that Dr. Claudia Henschke, a Weill Cornell Medical College researcher, received $3.6 million of grant money from the Vector Group, a cigarette company, to conduct a study on the benefit of C.T. scans on lung cancer.
Harris-Warrick explained that the University would not approve any contract that could prevent research from being published.
“Cornell would prevent any contract that [hinders researchers] from publishing their work in any public forum,” said Harris-Warrick. “We often do research in controversial topics, [but] the essential thing is that we operate independently and publish our work.”
This goes along with the idea that studies are more beneficial if the information is free.
The University requires that all faculty members complete a financial disclosure form annually that lists all outside work, including classes taught over the summer.
Last spring, the University came under fire when it was discovered that Cornell was the only research college in the country receiving research funding from a tobacco company. Philip Morris USA donated about $1 million to fund research in the plant breeding and genetics department.
When asked whether researchers can do away with funding from special interest establishments, Harris-Warrick emphasized that while the public constantly demands new drugs, the federal government does not have the resources to fund ongoing research. Moreover, many of the contracts signed by researchers involve drugs or electronic companies.
“I don’t see that that’s inherently evil as long it’s regulated,” he said, citing the need for researchers to work with drug companies. “The point of the matter is [that] there is nothing you can do about [it]; especially now that the market is crashing.”
Dr. David Scheinberg, co-chair of the pharmacology graduate program at Weill Cornell Medical College and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, said that Weill “supports full disclosure and reviews of all research.”
“There is an expectation for scientists to disclose their sources of funding once their work is been published,” he said.
On accepting funds from drug companies, Scheinberg said that investigators are allowed “under appropriate review and disclosure” to receive funding from most outside sources. In addition, he mentioned that certain types of research cannot be done without the expertise and resources of biotechnology and drug companies.
“It would be very difficult to conduct certain types of research without the help of drug companies,” he said.
When asked if he perceives any conflict of interest in cases where drug companies sponsor researchers working on a controversial topic, Scheinberg commented that there is potential for conflict of interest, which is why contracts are reviewed by individuals unaffiliated with the research at hand. Furthermore, he explained, there is restriction on contracts made particularly when the contracts involve drugs administered to patients.
Kayleigh Fischer ’09, believes a study becomes less credible and more suspicious if one of the study models is provided by the same organization funding the research. She said that if a researcher is funded by a drug or cigarette company to conduct a study on the effect of that drug or cigarette on humans, then the study is no longer credible. However, if the research is confirmed by another study funded by a different source, then the study would seem more credible to her.
“I would think that if they’re funding a study that [involves no] drug or cigarette, it would be less suspicious, [as] they would have no stake in it,” Fischer remarked.