By Pam Gill and Sam Chown
He who pays the piper calls the tune. If true, then the public should start investing more in its health care research.
At least that’s what a group of academics argued at the University of King’s College on Monday, February 15th, 2010. The group of four panelists assembled in Alumni Hall to discuss the implications of pharmaceutical industry influence from the laboratory to the marketplace. The debate entitled “Just in Time: Healthy Research?” was jointly organized by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs and Situating Science.
The panel arguing for government investment and public regulation of medical research was Jocelyn Downie, from Dalhousie University, Faculties of Law and Medicine; Chris MacDonald of Saint Mary’s University, Department of Philosophy and Francoise Baylis of Novel Tech Ethics and Dalhousie University’s Department of Bioethics.
Rounding out the panel was crowd favorite, Don Weaver, of Dalhousie University’s Department of Chemistry and School of Biomedical Engineering who indulged in his role as “the industry villain”.
Baylis opened up the debate by airing her distrust in the industry, which she says is rightfully warranted because often their sole objective is to please shareholders and generate a profit. She says the public should be more concerned with how “our” tax dollars are being spent. “What we’re really talking about is something that has been a concern to academics for ten years,” she says.
Downie agreed saying that universities have to respond to the need of the public, especially for the vulnerable and pursue those needs through their research.
“We’re a public institution, we should be serving the public interest,” she says.
MacDonald followed, saying universities researching or developing a particular drug may have their mission corrupted by pharmaceutical companies eager to intrude with funding, and private interests. But he adds that banning pharmaceutical money altogether would be unreasonable.
Industry is good at fulfilling the public interest’s “wants” such as producing drugs like Viagra, but not necessarily their “needs” such as drugs for Malaria, said MacDonald. But that research isn’t extended to the “orphan” community unless a profit is somehow involved.
Weaver rebutted saying heath care is dependant on industry. “All drugs out there come from industry,” he said.
He reminded the audience that industry is ever growing, changing and improving. He says it is patient and not expecting to make an immediate profit. In a perverse way, this is best for public interest because shareholders want pharmaceutical companies to be around for a long time. In order for that to happen, companies need to produce products that are both safe and effective and will eventually turn a profit.
Downie acknowledged that the blame doesn’t rest on the scientists themselves but rather the companies funding and deciding their research. A hazard of this is that attention is diverted away from breakthrough medical advances and towards more commercial successes.
A solution brought up by Baylis is that the government start regulating research dollars. She said about $172 billion is spent on Canadian health care annually, but less than 1 per cent of that total goes towards research and development. It’s an issue of reorganizing our priorities. Baylis says at least 3 per cent of the annual budget should be reinvested into R&D and this would have astronomical benefits.
By the time the floor opened to questions, many members of the audience took the opportunity to express their own concerns and discontent towards the industry. But the debate is far from achieving any concrete solutions. Market-led development has too many strings attached to truly benefit the public interest. At the moment it is worth considering the potential that the public has to reform industry’s influence on research.
The debate now is how to make this happen…