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March 22, 2007


Galileo, the first physicist, threatened religious dogma by supporting the Copernican heliocentric theory. This earned him a summons to the Vatican where Cardinal Bellarmino showed him the instruments of torture. When Galileo continued to argue that the earth revolved around the sun, the pope placed him under house arrest.

Science thrives on untrammeled thinking and exploration, full disclosure and rapid publication of results. Modern science continues to be hampered by commercial and religious interests. Consider the ban on stem cells or the arguments for intelligent design. Reflect for a moment on the actions of established pharmaceutical companies in defense of Vioxx, Paxil and Zyprexia.

Can good science and commerce co-exist? This critical topic will be addressed March 28 when the University Senate holds its spring plenary session.

The nature of scientific work has changed radically over the recent past. When I was a medical student, Otto Myerhoff, Penn’s Nobel Laureate, still had his laboratory down the hall from the freshman anatomy lab. Through his open door we could watch, in awe, the old man, by himself, working his Van Slyke apparatus.

Those days are gone. Big science demands big budgets, teams of investigators and expensive equipment. The federal budget has not expanded to keep pace, and commercial interests are at hand for support. This is a mixed blessing; it carries a cost.

The primary goal of science is the creation of new knowledge; the primary goal of the largest drug companies, profit. The unavoidable tension between these competing drives needs to be examined closely and understood if it is to be harnessed. The development and promotion of a single drug can cost billions of dollars. When a drug is found to have toxic properties, bottom-line financial considerations can sway decisions over releasing findings. Withholding data about the dangerous properties of drugs is not rare. Even old, long-distinguished drug companies have succumbed. Merck suppressed data on the deaths associated with Vioxx, as did Pfizer with Paxil, and Eli Lilly with Zyprexia.

With the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, patenting new knowledge became possible, and with it real wealth became accessible to scientists. Many found new income as drug industry spokespersons, consultants or as members of pharmaceutical boards. The availability of large amounts of money through these sources can sway critical judgment. The reach of this influence even into the federal research apparatus was disclosed recently when Trey Sunderland, a senior NIH scientist, was exposed for violating federal policy and not reporting over $250,000 in consultant fees from Pfizer. At the same time that he was consulting, he was sending samples of brain tissue to Pfizer laboratories without notifying his employer, the federal government. This is the most recent and egregious example.

The fruits of scientific work often reach past finding new knowledge to becoming involved in regulatory proceedings or in tort litigation. Corporate interests that stand to lose money through these processes employ large staffs of well-paid lawyers and scientific consultants to scramble and contest the conclusions of scientific studies. The tactics of litigators in these battles bear no resemblance to the pronounced ethics of scientists.

Last year Pitt’s University Senate held a plenary session to encourage the integration of science with commerce. That symposium presented lengthy arguments in support of the benefits of such a collaboration, but was silent about subjects such as conflicts of interest, withholding of data or other ethical solecisms. No mention was made during the meeting about the risks of blending financial considerations with health research.

This year’s plenary session will have a different focus. It was stimulated by a recently published book, “Protecting Science From Politics.” The book’s prologue was written by Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford and current editor-in-chief of Science magazine. After examining the interaction between science and the law, Kennedy concluded:

“Many [scientists] are wary of work that may find use in some regulatory proceeding. They wonder whether the data underlying their findings may be subject to examination and reinterpretation, perhaps with some ‘spin’ supplied by the revisionists. They know that charges of research misconduct could arise from hostile access to their scientific work. They know they are vulnerable to personal attack from those whose interests may be adversely affected by the product of their research.

“In some ways, there has never been a better time for science. It is exciting, and the fact that it is subject to political attention means that it matters — more than ever. But though it is a good time for science, it is a perilous time for scientists.”

The March 28 plenary session will examine the goals of science and commerce and attempt to determine whether they are at all compatible or necessarily opposed.

Our principal speakers are two outstanding students of the subject: Professor Sheldon Krimsky, Tufts University, and Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Professor Krimsky’s research has focused on the linkages between science/technology, ethics/values and public policy. He is the author of eight books, including “Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research?” and “Genetic Alchemy: The Social History of the Recombinant DNA Controversy.”

Dr. Krimsky served on the National Institutes of Health’s recombinant DNA advisory committee, 1978-1981, and was a consultant both to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, and to the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. He was chairperson of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s committee on scientific freedom and responsibility, 1988-1992. Currently he serves on the board of directors for the Council for Responsible Genetics and as a fellow of the Hastings Center on Bioethics.

Dr. DeAngelis, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees, began her medical career as a nurse. She then earned a medical degree from Pitt’s School of Medicine. While a medical student, she also taught student nurses.

After medical school, Dr. DeAngelis began a pediatric residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She later obtained a Master’s of Public Health degree from Harvard’s program in health law and economics. While at Harvard she worked at the Roxbury, Mass., comprehensive community clinic and also wrote a textbook for nurse practitioner-medical resident teams, “Basic Pediatrics for Primary Care Providers.”

In 1978 Dr. DeAngelis became chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at Johns Hopkins, then deputy chair of the department and then vice dean for academic affairs and faculty in 1994. She currently is editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association. In that position she has been a leader in developing guidelines to identify and eliminate conflicts of interest in scientific journals.

In addition to the two speakers, comments on the subject will be offered by Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, Provost James Maher and Dr. Arthur Levine, senior vice chancellor for the Health Sciences and dean, School of Medicine. This will be followed by comments from the audience.

The spring plenary session will take place 2-5 p.m. March 28 in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room. All are encouraged to attend this session, which will focus on a subject of vital importance to us all.


Herbert Needleman, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics in the School of Medicine, is co-chair and organizer of the March 28 Senate plenary session.

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