The Nationalization of Basic Science

Overzealous Attempts to Protect Scientific Integrity will Damage American Science as a Whole

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) instituted draconian new ethics rules, this past February, aimed at protecting its reputation, which had been damaged by a series of revelations about conflicts of interest among its researchers. The new rules forbid NIH employees—both research and support staff—and their spouses and dependents from holding significant financial interests in or receiving fees from drug, biotechnology, and other medically-oriented companies.

The announcement of the rules was met with derision from NIH staff, and has led to some high-profile resignations, including those of the head of the National Institute on Deafness and the newly-appointed head of National Institute of Environmental Health. The chairman of NIH’s department of clinical bioethics, Ezekiel Emanuel, asked, “If we really want to reassure the public, why don’t we apply these to everyone who gets an NIH grant?”

That may well be the next step. A recent study published in the journal Nature that asked over 3,000 recipients of NIH funding about scientific misconduct found that 15 percent admitted to “[c]hanging the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source”—though only 0.3 percent admitted to actual falsification or “cooking” of research data. Still, the study empowered lobby groups like the Alliance for Human Research Protection to argue, “The fact is, Big Pharma could not possibly have succeeded in undermining the integrity of American medicine without the complicity of leading academics at premier medical institutions—including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, the University of California, and the National Institutes of Health.”

Yet this attitude—that private sector interests are corrupting science and that anyone who has any association with a private sector interest is somehow tainted—presents a greater danger to American science than the alleged problem of conflict of interest, which is, in reality, a paper tiger.