Feature

A growing number of scientists receive all or part of their paychecks from industry. And psychologists--particularly those working with pharmaceuticals, testing and medical-devices--are among them. Some are employed by the businesses themselves, while others are academicians who receive research contracts from private companies, much as they do grants from government agencies.

Statistics underscore the trend toward increasing corporate sponsorship: Industry funding of biomedical research, in which psychologists are studying the effects of medications and medical devices, for example, rose from 32 percent in 1980 to 62 percent in 2000, according to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA, Vol. 289, No. 4).

Seen through one lens, this trend is neutral or even positive--part of a general economic shift toward privatizing research and encouraging entrepreneurial creativity. But as many recent media reports have noted, the relationship holds the potential to narrow the research agenda.

Not only could it restrict researchers' focus to specific products, but it could suppress scientific exchange by encouraging researchers to keep "trade secrets," according to industry-funded psychologists and industry critics. Some also worry that it could promote unsound science and potentially harm lives if companies ask researchers to withhold negative data to place their products in a more favorable light than the data fully support.

"With corporate funding, you have a strong interest in the specific outcomes of the research, and often either direct or indirect pressure to produce specific findings," notes James L. McGaugh, PhD, who directs the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), and studies drugs that aid memory.

Fortunately, oversight in the area is improving with the increased publishing of standards and guidelines by universities and national and professional organizations.

But despite these safeguards--and despite the fact that many psychologists report positive dealings with industry--industry-funded research has a way to go before it matches the openness and integrity of research funded by government agencies and universities, psychologists and industry critics say.

"It's not that NIH funding is good and corporate sponsorship is bad," says McGaugh. "They are different, and one carries with it more things an investigator needs to be concerned about."

Undue influence?

According to many researchers, one of the most common ways that corporations try to influence what is known about a product--whether a drug, a test or a medical device--is to encourage researchers to spin the findings they report in academic journals. They do this by asking investigators to squelch or manipulate data that's unfavorable to a product, or asking them not to report negative or null results. Companies can even threaten to sue researchers if they try to report results unfavorable to the company's product, according to some media accounts.

A number of psychologists report experiences that are less dramatic but that some of them still find troubling. William E. Pelham Jr., PhD, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo and director of the Center for Children and Families there, is a case in point. Pelham, who receives funding both from the National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies to study treatments for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, says he has been pressured by a pharmaceutical company to change the text in three journal articles, both to minimize the contribution of psychosocial treatments to the studies' outcomes and to put a positive spin on drug effects.

A related trend, Pelham and others note, is for drug companies to write up and analyze data that a researcher has collected, sometimes paying the researcher to attend a conference and present it. "It's an attempt to get around the [publication] guidelines," Pelham explains. On the other hand, Pelham says he has worked with companies that have given him free reign both in the presentation and interpretation of the data.

David Patterson, PhD, an expert in rehabilitation medicine at the University of Washington, says he often attends medical conferences where physicians laud a commercial medical treatment in a paper but fail to mention who supported the study. "But everyone knows they're funded by a sponsor," says Patterson, who has reported null findings on a drug despite protests from a sponsor.

The pharmaceutical and medical devices industries aren't the only ones that engage in such practices. In the testing industry, for example, many testing companies have adopted the strategy of reporting only the results they choose to, maintains Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the testing-industry watchdog FairTest.

But perhaps the most worrisome overall effect of corporate sponsorship, notes McGaugh, is its potentially chilling effect on scientific exchange--the case, for example, with labs that are developing a product they hope to patent.

"Sometimes researchers withhold information from even their closest colleagues," McGaugh says. "That puts a shadow on the intellectual enterprise."

Positive relationships

At the same time, many psychologists report largely positive relationships with companies they work with. Psychologist David P. Walling, PhD, for example, says he does not feel he is compromising his research integrity by conducting pharmaceutical company-sponsored clinical trials on medications to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety.

Although he signs confidentiality agreements with his corporate clients on behalf of his company, Collaborative Neuroscience Network in Fountain Valley, Calif., Walling says, "There is a real focus on safety. Everything that happens during a study is captured in the research."

Likewise, Sam Sears Jr., PhD, a psychologist at the University of Florida (UF) and an expert on the psychological effects of implantable cardiac defibrillators, says he enjoys excellent, nonconflictual relationships with the medical devices companies he contracts with.

"These are Fortune 100 companies that have very firm, strong, long-term commitments to saving people's lives," Sears says. "The vast majority of times, we share the same agenda of doing good science and understanding the impact of these technologies on patients. There tends not to be that much drama around that."

Other investigators note that while their situations with sponsors may not be ideal, they can sometimes work out agreements that preserve their scientific integrity.

"I have reached compromises with drug companies where a few wording changes made the company happy but did not change the scientific content," Pelham says. "When such changes allow far-reaching dissemination of important scientific results, making a few small changes may be worth it." But discussions with companies can be difficult, he adds, because the "companies' goal is to sell medications, while researchers' is to accurately report scientific results."

Oversight and safeguards

Ultimately, how honest the data are and to what degree researchers feel able to conduct good science depend on the sophistication, expertise and financial stability of both the company and the researcher, those involved say.

Fortunately, universities, researchers and the public are getting better at protecting their scientific interests and rights. In 2001, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, a consortium representing 12 leading medical journals including JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), drew up guidelines saying they would only publish articles written by researchers who could prove they had control over their data and authority to decide whether to release the results. In March, the Bush administration proposed federal guidelines that would allow research institutions to curtail researchers' financial interest in studies involving human subjects, a proposal similar to reports issued in 2001 by the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Association of American Universities.

Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry issued voluntary guidelines last summer that are designed to protect research integrity and patient safety. Universities, too, are establishing offices and creating guidelines to address corporate-academic relations, though they vary from institution to institution. UCI, for example, has set up an Office of Technology Alliance to protect investigators from excessive corporate control, and UF has established an academic-corporate relations office with the same objective.

The situation is confounded by the fact that universities and researchers sometimes have competing interests, notes Robert G. Frank, PhD, professor and dean in UF's College of Health Professions. Universities want rights to the researchers' intellectual property, while researchers want to retain control over their own ideas and research. His university deals with the situation, he says, by requiring researchers to divulge outside employment and to work out agreements with the university about who gets paid what--an increasingly common tack at other universities as well.

For individual researchers who want to partner with industry, a few strategies can prevent the loss of power that can accompany these relationships, industry contractors add.

One is to create contracts up front that give you the right to publish your data the way you want to, says Roland Griffiths, PhD, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University who tests the abuse potential of medical drugs, sometimes with corporate funds.

Another is to avoid endorsing specific products, says Geoffrey M. Reed, PhD, the APA Practice Directorate's assistant executive director for professional development. Last year, APA collaborated with the pharmaceutical company Pharmacia and the Pediatric Endocrine Nursing Society to develop workshop materials on childhood growth disorders for pediatric health-care workers and school nurses. The workshop focused on how to gauge normal growth and the psychosocial consequences of abnormal growth; APA's role was to provide information about psychosocial issues and coping strategies.

The relationship worked for APA, says Reed, because APA was clear about the limits of its role and it retained editorial control over the materials it developed.

"The materials never mentioned any specific pharmaceutical product," he says, although Pharmacia manufactures a product to treat growth disorders. "We did this project because we felt psychology had a substantive knowledge-base that could be used to benefit children."

As researchers and industry become more savvy about their roles, an attitude of cautious optimism is probably in order, comments Jeffrey Drazen, MD, NEJM editor in chief and a main author of the medical-journal guidelines.

Since the guidelines were released in 2001, he has noticed slow but steady growth in the number of NEJM contributors following them. While the changes are encouraging, "What will be more meaningful is what happens over the next three or four years," he says.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.