All Your Science Are Belong To Us

More disturbing anecdotal evidence that everyone is using ‘science’ to their advantage:

Drug companies fund a growing number of the studies in leading psychiatric journals, and drugs fare much better in these company-funded studies than in trials done independently or by competitors, researchers reported Wednesday.

About 57% of published studies were paid for by drug companies in 2002, compared with 25% in 1992, says psychiatrist Igor Galynker of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

His team looked at clinical research in four influential journals: American Journal of Psychiatry, Archives of General Psychiatry, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology.

In the report, released at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in Toronto, reviewers did not know who paid for the studies they evaluated, Galynker says. There were favorable outcomes for a medication in about:

• Eight out of 10 studies paid for by the company that makes the drug.

• Five out of 10 studies done with no industry support.

• Three out of 10 studies done by competitors of the firm making the drug.

The findings don’t prove the companies are knowingly biasing studies, says co-author Robert Kelly Jr., also with Beth Israel. The report didn’t look at the evidence for bias in design of the studies.

Some quick caveats- it is important to understand that just because researchers have reports funded by drug companies that provided more positive findings, that does not necessarily mean they are fixing data or acting unethical in any way. In social science research, it is entirely possible to shape the outcome of a study simply through the research questions asked, and that is more than likely what is happening here. University researchers receive a grant to do a study, the research questions are provided for them and/or the design, they complete the study, and because of the nature of the questions asked, more often than not industry funded studies yield ‘positive’ results.

There is, in and of itself, nothing unethical about that, IMHO. What is troubling is that it would appear that the hard questions may not be asked at the rate they need to be, and that university researchers are forced to take money from people who have a vested interest in an outcome.

I want to be careful, here- this is my conjecture, and I think it will be unfortunate if people jump the gun and start claiming that ‘researchers are selling out.’ That more than likely is not the case, and what I have outlined is probably more accurate. Again, I am coming from this from a social sciences perspective, so I will leave it to Tim to fill in the blanks regarding research design and the hard sciences.

Having said all that, given the movements on the right and the left to politicize and denigrate science to achieve their political goals, it only seems to make sense that private corporations would themselves want to get in on the action. It makes sense, but it is still depressing.

*** Update ***

These comments are from Tim:

The story here is actually pretty simple. I don’t think that the studies themselves are corrupted, mostly because standard practices exist that almost eliminate researcher bias. Most of these studies at least claim to follow these practices, e.g. double-blind experimentation, agreeing on statistical methods prior to data collection, having the data itself analyzed by independent hands, so unless they are performing outright fraud (which I doubt) the studies are on the level.

The real disconnect happens after the research is done and before the work sees publication. Unlike government funding researchers who take industry money sign an agreement to publish the results only if the funding agency (e.g., Pfizer or Merck) approves. One of the reasons why drug companies have such massive budgets, then, is that they will fund five or six separate studies and only agree to publish the three or four that come out looking the best for drug X. Or to put it in a more generous light, imagine that you fund four studies and three come out looking pretty good for your putative drug. The fourth, though, looks terrible, performing as well or worse than the placebo. Maybe it’s an outlier, or the researchers screwed up somehow. As a competitive drug company you have huge, enormous pressures to let that outlier fourth study disappear into obscurity.

So in my view this result is entirely unsurprising. If you take two equal bell-shaped curves, A and B, and you cut off the left-side tail of curve A, then the average value for A will end up slightly higher than B. I think it is very likely that private and public-funded studies come out like curves A and B where the “real” distribution is more or less the same but the drug companies cut off the unfriendly “tail” of their curve before it reaches the public.

My guess is that the amount that gets cut off depends strongly on how competitive the drug is. If a company has an exclusive patent that they know gives them years of flex time to get it right then they may let research get through more or less unmolested. In a neck-and-neck race to release a blockbuster like Vioxx I would bet that the pressure to push the curve a little is practically unbearable.

None of this should surprise anybody. Free market rules control all publicly-traded companies and until somebody writes a law requiring them to publish every study that they fund (which would not be a bad idea) they will be within their rights to protect their interests.

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12 replies
  1. 1
    Steve says:

    I think companies were playing games with science well before it became a partisan political issue. Just look at the history of the tobacco or asbestos industries. In fact, the very reason it became a partisan political issue is because those very companies give generously to politicians to advance their interests.

  2. 2

    Some quick caveats- it is important to understand that just because researchers have reports funded by drug companies that provided more positive findings, that does not necessarily mean they are fixing data or acting unethical in any way. In social science research, it is entirely possible to shape the outcome of a study simply through the research questions asked, and that is more than likely what is happening here.

    I guess I view that as unethical.

    I understand why it’s happening, and it’s not necessarily the researcher who is responsible, but rather the system. Still, I think it’s sad what has happened to our Universities.

    This raises a larger question for me, as I went to college in the late 1980s and then worked at the University until 1996. I know back in the early 1980s there was an act passed by Congress which allowed Universities to better work with private corporations on research. The act allowed universities to license patents, etc.

    It seems to me that corresponding with that change, the shift of university priorities changed. Which is not necessarily bad.

    But what concerns me is when I read stuff like this. Coupled with, since the early 1980s the tuition at universities has gone up in double digit percentages every year, well above the cost of inflation. Why would that be, if the collaboration was supposed to bring in more money to the universities?

    Something is happening here which is disturbing, and I think it threatens our entire system.

  3. 3
    Steve says:

    Tim raises an interesting point in his final paragraph. Publicly-traded companies actually could face liability undre the securities laws if they concealed information regarding a study that didn’t turn out so well, depending on just how material the concealment is. I’ve never sued a pharmaceutical company so I’m not sure if this sort of theory is commonly used.

  4. 4
    Zifnab says:

    Universities are being run like businesses. The state of Texas, for instance, has taken a very large step backwards in funding UT, their investment dropping from 74% of UT’s costs to somewhere around 30% over the past 20 years. At the same time, deregulated tuition has seen skyrocketing costs – on average $300-700/year increase every year – and classes sizes have ballooned. The University of Texas is in a constant state of construction, although very few new classes are being built. The business school receives a lion’s share of the money, as does the football team, because they bring in the largest financial contributions from donors.

    Our school board is regularly composed of businessmen, many of whom have never attended the University, but all of whom are close personal friends with the Governor (surprise, surprise). In general, the University has become more and more a diploma mill. It’s rather sad.

  5. 5
    Ryan S. says:

    Completely off-topic

    Todays cute little mouse award goes to http://www.sciam.com.

  6. 6
    ppGaz says:

    None of this should surprise anybody. Free market rules control all publicly-traded companies and until somebody writes a law requiring them to publish every study that they fund (which would not be a bad idea) they will be within their rights to protect their interests.

    Sorry, gotta big problem with that.

    Drugs and medicines are literally a real time life and death matter. Doesn’t your blurb suggest that economic, and not medical and scientific, imperatives are either THE drivers here, or are drivers on an equal footing with each other? That’s what I see in the blurb, and if I am right, then the blurb is toxic. Wrong, bad, etc.

    Pharma has an ethical obligation to medical and scientific truth, and has an obligation not to let that truth become just another version of market and economic truth.

    If Pharma can’t patrol that line, then somebody else needs to do it for them.

  7. 7

    Who isn’t on the take for big pharma?

    Appreciate your blog,i have a victims support page against Eli Lilly for it’s defective Zyprexa product causing my diabetes.–Daniel Haszard http://www.zyprexa-victims.com

  8. 8
    nyrev says:

    Does anyone know if there is a copy of this story available that actually cites its sources? Because the McNews article’s “according to a research review” is frustratingly vague. Is it referring to all drug research, or just antipsychotics? (If it’s antipsychotic specific, I’d look into the study design, particularly how the test groups are selected.)Who performed said review?

    I’d love to unleash some self-righteous outrage on someone, but I’m not going to do it until I have more evidence than USAToday’s “a friend of a friend told us” style of journalism.

  9. 9
    Steve says:

    It seems to me that if you passed a law requiring every study to be published, you would simply see the pharma companies exercising tighter controls over which studies they fund in the first place. Still, I’m not sure there would be a real downside.

  10. 10
    Bird Dog says:

    Gee whiz. Can we please take a minute to thank these companies – especially these American companies – who have made such a huge difference in the quality of human life over the past 30 years? How about a bit of gratitude. Without a profit motive, none of this would have been done. Any new drugs from Russia, China or Cuba? Come on, people!

  11. 11
    pigilito says:

    I agree with Tim’s update up to a point. Researchers, especially those in a university setting (the vast majority), have the contracts between the researcher and funding source proofed for just these sorts of clauses. The funding source does not have the ability to halt publication solely on their say so.

    What they can do is pressure the reseaercher to not publish through promises of future funding, etc.

  12. 12

    to quote an old but classic movie

    ……
    I am shocked, simply shocked, to find out that gambling is going on in this establishment!

    Here are your winnings, Inspector!
    ……

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