Steve Connor: Hidden cost of a 'free lunch' from a drugs company

Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as free science. Someone has to pay for it, and if that someone is not the taxpayer, then the burden must fall outside government, sometimes, even, to those organisations with a vested interest in publicising a certain message - backed up by the appropriate scientific evidence.

As the BMJ reports, pharmaceuticals companies tend to publish only those studies that are favourable to the drugs they peddle. The BMJ found abundant evidence of selective reporting and bias when it came to studies funded by the drugs industry, which raises the issue of whether we can ever believe what is claimed in the medical press.

Peer-review - the process where "independent" specialists, protected by anonymity, vet research prior to publication - is meant to weed out bad science, but it would be wrong to think that this is infallible. The reviewers themselves may be biased, they may simply not have the wherewithal to make the right decision, or the data may be flawed.

Few medical professionals - whether they are doctors or esteemed medical editors - can say that they have never taken hospitality from the pharmaceuticals industry. But the question is whether a free lunch - or an all-expenses trip to the Caribbean - will influence your subsequent dealings with that company.

Richard Smith, the editor of the BMJ, tells the story of a trip 20 years ago to Eli Lilly's headquarters in Indianapolis, where he and his wife were put up in a grand hotel. It taught him something about the conflict of interest. "Your opinion may not be bought, but it seems rude to say critical things about people who have hosted you so well," he says.

It is, of course, too simplistic to denounce the pervasive influence of drug companies. They have a right to promote themselves and their products in a lawful and ethical manner. They also have a right - indeed a moral duty - to fund independent scientists. The question is how to make sure that this relationship is based on openness and honesty.

Perhaps we should follow the lead of the University of California. It is considering a ban on free lunches sponsored by drug companies.

Comments