DANCING WITH THE PORCUPINE
GARDINER HARRIS IS A MAN ON A MISSION — one aimed at uncovering the truth about conflicts-of-interest between the drug companies and the psychiatric medicine machine. In the past year, his sterling reporting for the New York Times has given collusion and corruption in psychiatric medicines the kind of intense national scrutiny missing for decades.
It is extremely gratifying to know that my film GENERATION RX — which delves deeply into the issue — will not be left twisting in the wind all alone. Mr. Harris’ reporting confirms yet another basic tenet of my documentary: conflicts-of-interest not only do exist, but they are pervasive, and run throughout the mental health community.
Today Mr. Harris revealed another shocker: the host of National Public Radio’s popular show “The Infinite Mind,” a program that has won in excess of 60 journalism awards, has accepted at least $1.3 million from the drug companies for marketing lectures. And that is only since the year 2000. Mr. Harris reports that Dr. Frederick K. Goodwin, the psychiatrist and radio host, “is the latest in a series of doctors and researchers whose ties to drug makers have been uncovered by Senator Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.”
During my interviews for GENERATION RX, Professor Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University detailed how funding cuts in Academic research during the Reagan years helped precipitate this “blurring of the line” between academic/scientific research and commercial interests. “What they (the Reagan administration) thought they would do is to create a closer linkage between the corporate world and the academic world,” says Krimsky. “So they created incentives for corporations to invest in universities. At the same time, they kept proclaiming that . . .the federal budget was going to be mean and lean, and that got university administrators very concerned. How were they going to make up the financial downfall in the university budget?”
University presidents, Krimsky pointed out, were now between a rock and an economic hard place, and opted for survival “by creating this new era of commercialized academia.” It soon became acceptable for scientists to have a commercial affiliation while being paid as a basic researcher. This changed the ethos of science, perhaps forever.
In the old days — and by ‘old’ I mean the 1970s — academic and journalistic interests worked hand-in-hand to root out the best of scientific research. Integrity of the information was paramount — in fact, it was the stated goal. During that era, skepticism was a hallmark of the academic mission. It kept what some brilliant Canadian conflict-of-interest researchers called “the premature enthusiasms of industry,” in check.
As Gardiner Harris and other journalists have discovered, those safeguards were abandoned years ago. GENERATION RX puts forth many of the shocking details, but Sheldon Krimsky knew all of this would come to pass, sooner or later.
He tells viewers how there are two rules that operate within the federal advisory committees, the groups responsible for making recommendations on whether any given drug should be available to consumers. “Rule number one says that anyone who has a substantial conflict of interest cannot serve on a federal advisory committee,” Krimsky says with a knowing smirk. “Rule number two says that rule number one can be waived. And rule number one is waived; in some cases the evidence shows 50 percent of the time.”
So there you have it. The very rules written into law to protect the public from conflicts-of-interest actually make allowances for the rules to be broken half the time. “One culture’s pursuit of the truth is supposed to be unencumbered by money,” Krmsky concludes, “and the other culture, for which money is the medium of exchange, is the bottom line.”
The Canadian conflict-of-interest researchers recognized this ethical landmine as the most dangerous and daunting challenge for today’s academic research programs. In fact, they coined the perfect term to decribe what it is like when academia and the pharmaceutical companies are joined at the hip.
They call it, “Dancing with the Porcupine,” a term meant to describe the steep and painful price we all pay when the cherished institutions we rely upon for truth — go awry.