Drug industry still has many ties to university researchers

But recent conflict-of-interest policies may have caused a decrease in direct industry funding for research.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted Nov. 26, 2009

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A survey of about 2,000 academic scientists at 50 universities found that more than half had some type of relationship with the drug, biotechnology and medical device industry during the previous three years -- whether for consulting, speaking engagements, serving on an advisory board or receiving research funding.

The survey, which was conducted in 2006-07, also revealed that the prevalence of direct funding by industry for clinical research appears to be decreasing. While 28% of researchers reported receiving industry funding in 1995, 20% in the recent survey said industry funded their research, according to the survey in the November/December Health Affairs (link).

The adoption of new financial disclosure policies by universities, medical centers and journals, combined with the increase in high profile conflict-of-interest cases, may be one reason for the decline in industry funding, said lead author Darren E. Zinner, PhD, senior lecturer at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Researchers "don't want to be labeled as being in the pocket of industry," he said.

Researchers also may not be as dependent on industry money since federal funds have become more plentiful, Zinner said. The budget of the National Institutes of Health, for example, doubled between 1998 and 2003. After a five-year period of flat budgets, the NIH budget was increased by 3.2% in 2009.

Plus, industry may not consider academic research to be as good an investment as it was a decade ago, Zinner said. Many clinical trials are moving away from academia to stand-alone research centers in the U.S. or overseas.

In another survey finding, academic researchers appear to have become more entrepreneurial than they were in the past, Zinner said. The number of researchers without industry support who said they had applied for patents to protect the potential commercial value of their findings increased from 35% in 1995 to 43% in 2006. Among researchers who received industry support, the number reporting patent applications remained about the same, 57% in 2006.

The survey was mailed to a randomly selected group of life science faculty members at the 50 universities receiving the most NIH support in 2004. The survey, a modified version of one sent 10 years earlier, asked several questions about respondents' relationships and activities in the preceding three years.

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