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Acad Med. 1996 Dec;71(12):1297-304.

Perception, reality, and the political context of conflict of interest in university-industry relationships.

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  • 1Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C., USA.


The crucial issues in a policy debate are often matters of perception and interpretation rather than fact, and the values and norms that influence perceptions are central to an understanding of conflict in the policy arena. For example, science's norms of objectivity and disinterestedness are being modified today to accommodate closer academic-industry ties. The author traces in detail how these ties and the accompanying public distrust have developed, beginning with the post-World-War-II increase in public support for basic research and continuing with subsequent pieces of legislation that lowered the barriers between academic and industrial research in order to reap economic benefits. He then analyzes the impact of financial incentives in university-industry relationships on science and on public perceptions of science, and the price both science and the public would pay if the public loses trust in science and refuses to support it. He also reviews the history of the ill-fated National Institutes of Health guidelines for university-industry collaborations proposed in 1979 and the subsequent history of the policy on this topic recently adopted by the Public Health Service. He maintains that the PHS policy poses both a risk (the temptation to enforce the policy loosely) and an opportunity (for research institutions to grasp the initiative and develop meaningful conflict-of-interest guidelines of their own). But the policy falls short of responding to the much broader range of concerns associated with university-industry research collaboration, for example, the possible effects of such collaboration on the traditional openness and sharing among scientists. The available data on these effects are mixed. He concludes by maintaining that scientists and their industry partners should address the issues surrounding their collaboration now rather than waiting for negative events to trigger public arousal and force a mutually unsatisfying political solution. This article is one of three in this issue of Academic Medicine that deal with issues of conflict of interest in university-industry research relationships. These articles are discussed in an overview that precedes them.

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