November 29, 2012

Weill Cornell Dean Remains on Corporate Payrolls, Sparking Debate About Industry’s Role in Academia

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The dean of Weill Cornell Medical College has remained a high-ranking director at two of the world’s largest medical companies since she was named to WCMC’s top post in Fall 2011. While some experts question whether her multiple allegiances endanger the objectivity of research produced at the medical college, others dismiss these concerns and say that the dean’s ties to industry should be viewed as an asset.

In addition to receiving an academic salary from Cornell, WCMC Dean Laurie Glimcher receives six-figure salaries annually from pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Waters Corporation, a laboratory equipment company, according to the companies’ filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. There are no allegations that Glimcher has used her position at Weill to do anything illegal or to steer the school to purchase those companies’ products.

But leading research ethicists say such close financial ties to big business can prove harmful in less obviously wrong ways. Having a medical college’s top official personally and financially invested in the profits of the medical industry can stifle academic integrity and stain medical research with a subtle, if perhaps unconscious, corporate bias, they said.

“If medical faculty know they’re basically reporting to Bristol Myers Squibb, does that make them change what they do? Be more afraid to criticize certain priorities?” said Roy Poses, president of the non-profit Foundation for Integrity and Responsibility. “There’s a lot of evidence to [cause] concern [that it does] alter their behavior.”

Poses, who is also a professor of medicine at Brown University, pointed to board directors’ legal obligation to help the companies they work for.

“If you’re sworn to uphold these shareholders and you are good buddies with the management, are their interests always completely aligned with [those of] students and faculty [and] patients of the medical school?” Poses said.

Cornell administrators, however, said that Glimcher’s secondary occupations do not detract from her work as WCMC dean. In fact, University officials stressed that these outside jobs are crucial to advancing one of its long-term goals for WCMC: dramatically expanding its partnerships with industry.

“We must move research findings beyond academia to the public sector and private industry through a variety of mechanisms, including formal partnerships,” President David Skorton said in a statement given to The Sun. “These kinds of partnerships are necessary ingredients to translating research findings into public benefits.”

Glimcher, he said, is the ideal person for this initiative.

“[Glimcher is] the right leader to help all of us think through such new partnerships precisely because of her longstanding service on corporate boards that afforded her extensive experience in management oversight, corporate governance, corporate finance, accountability, leadership and the practical aspects of running a business and bringing therapeutics to the marketplace,” Skorton said. “Glimcher is a great addition to the leadership of our institution. She brings a passion for accomplishment and deep research and clinical strengths that position her well to lead and make the changes that are essential to WCMC’s expanding success.”

While how Cornell will be affected by the synthesis between academia and business remains to be seen, the partnership has already proven to be both financially and professionally lucrative for Glimcher.

Glimcher received $259,500 in compensation from Bristol-Myers Squibb and $277,150 from the Waters Corporation in 2011, the most recent year for which figures were publicly available, according to the SEC reports. Glimcher, who ran an immunology laboratory at Harvard College before she was appointed to WCMC in 2011, has received millions of dollars from the two companies since the late 1990s, the SEC filings show.

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars Glimcher receives annually from these companies, she also has a personal financial stake in their continued successes. Glimcher received $1.5 million in deferred share units from Bristol-Myers Squibb and tens of thousands of dollars in various stock options from the Waters Corporation in 2011, the SEC reports state.

While some deans of other Ivy League medical schools also retain ties to business, the vast majority do not have as many substantial positions for different businesses as Glimcher. Only Harvard Medical College dean Jeffrey Flier, who serves as co-chairman of Alinea Pharmaceuticals and a member of the Cantata Laboratories, has a similar number of secondary jobs.

Though Cornell defended Glimcher’s ties to industry, it outlined steps it is taking to prevent conflicts of interest from arising.

“The Office of the President and the Office of University Counsel have directed the formation of a conflicts advisory panel to recommend to President Skorton a conflicts management plan for the Dean of Weill Cornell Medical College,” a statement from John Rodgers, director of communications for Weill, stated. “This process is consistent with the University and Medical College conflicts management policies.”

Still, it may be more difficult than monitoring these types of conflicts of interest to prevent Glimcher’s connections from warping Weill’s research priorities. While not commenting on Glimcher specifically, Dr. Howard Brody, Institute for the Medical Humanities, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, noted that big business has a clear reason for adequately compensating members of academia.

“The pharmaceutical industry has, over the years, been extraordinarily successful in terms of profit-making. They don’t waste money on stuff that doesn’t work … If their business model is to conduct research in a certain way and to pay sums of money to various people to get them on board with them and [to be] part of their team, there’s a reasonable assumption that they think this works,” Brody said.

Brody said it is important to push institutions to eradicate potential conflicts of interest whenever they may arise.

“The question is what are the other sources of bias, and can they be eliminated,” he said. “Financial conflicts of interest can in principle be eliminated where many other sources of bias can’t.”

Original Author: Jeff Stein