Monday, February 17, 2014

Ethics in Epidemiology and Public Health

A recent spate of investigations into conflicts of interest among academics have left me both saddened at the examples of poor decision-making exhibited by certain individuals in the field of public health, and hopeful that there may be an opportunity for leadership by universities and professional organizations about how to better advise and regulate faculty in dealings with conflicts of interest.

In the wake of the article published by the Center for Public Integrity exposing Patricia Buffler's role on the board of a chemical company, Lauded public health researcher also worked for industry, revealing entanglements of science, the Epidemiology Monitor had a nice issue discussing the case and others.

Pat Buffler was a professor of mine - and actually was the instructor for my doctoral seminar where we covered professional and research ethics. I vividly remember a class session where we discussed disclosures in a scenario she gave us around a potential conflict of interest when a corporation had funded research into its product. I was shocked to read about her undisclosed conflicts of interest.

While I don't personally know what to make of her story - she conducted such important research over so many years and was an incredible mentor to may people I know and care about - I do believe that universities need to take a systematic approach to understanding and ridding themselves of conflicts of interest in research. In order for research to have an impact in the world, it needs to be perceived as credible. Scandals like this one threaten not just an individual's reputation, but an entire field's. We must confront these sorts of instances not by denying the problem, but by understanding where the gaps in oversight or cultures of complacency exist in order to change them.

I was recently reading a children's book about Rachel Carson. There is a line that forces me to acknowledge that these scandals are very old. In discussing how Rachel began research into the effects of DDT in 1958, the authors write, "No one had taken a stand against big business, federal agencies that approved chemical use, or universities that performed shoddy research about the effects of chemicals. She knew she was walking into dangerous territory. However, because she had no connection with industry, government, or any university, she felt she could gather facts more freely." Since when did affiliation with a university make conducting unbiased, high quality research harder? Yikes.

Two excellent antidotes to the nihilism that this could inspire are in recent issues of the New Yorker. One, a Shouts and Murmurs piece, describes an experiment to investigate the relations between obesity and soda consumption. The other documents the chemical company Syngenta's attacks on Tyrone Hayes, a savvy, dedicated professor who exposed the harmful effects of one of Syngenta's products. Another full disclosure: I audited Hayes' undergraduate endocrinology course at U.C. Berkeley and thought he was an excellent professor.

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