January 22, 2013

EDITORIAL: Ensuring Academic Neutrality at WCMC

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Since she was named dean of Weill Cornell Medical College in Fall 2011, Dr. Laurie Glimcher has remained a director at two of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, drawing six-figure salaries annually from both corporations in addition to her academic salary. Some experts question whether such ties endanger the objectivity of research at the college. While there are no allegations that Glimcher has committed any wrongdoing, we join these experts in their concern that such connections — both personal and financial — have the potential to distort the neutrality of academic research.

Leading research experts from the nation’s top bioethics institutions have pointed out that such close ties to business can prove harmful to academic institutions in a variety of ways. Being personally and financially invested in these companies — in Glimcher’s case, pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Waters Corporation, a laboratory equipment firm — can stifle academic integrity and hurt a college’s reputation for objective research. Even if the sum does not in fact distort research, just the appearance of impropriety is in itself a problem for Cornell.

The University has defended Glimcher’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry, stating that her other duties do not detract from her work as WCMC dean. In fact, President David Skorton has lauded her ties to these corporations, saying they align with WCMC’s long-term goal of dramatically expanding its partnerships with industry. We acknowledge the benefits of agreements between academia and the private sector, and know that these bonds can bring life-saving research advancements to market. However, we remain concerned that Glimcher’s personal financial stake in these companies’ success — in 2011 she received $259,500 in compensation and $1.5 million in deferred share units from Bristol-Myers Squibb alone — could lead her to put corporate profits before the best interests of the medical college’s students, faculty and patients.

Cornell has directed the formation of a panel to recommend a “conflicts management plan” to prevent any conflicts of interest between Glimcher and the medical industry. We commend Cornell’s careful attention to the issue. Yet such strong, personal connections between a top academic official and industry are dangerous. We are not convinced that the University’s conflicts of interest panel will eradicate the possibility Glimcher will be influenced by her ulterior sources of income.