October 26

Science Reporters Don’t Notice Conflicts of Interest

Science Reporters Don’t Notice Conflicts of Interest

Tue, 3 Dec 2002

An article by Neil Munro, in The Washington Monthly (below) exposes a journalistic failure by major science reporters. By examining how The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Chicago Tribune have reported stem cell and cloning research, he demonstrates that science reporters routinely avoid informing the public about the underlying conflicts of interest–as if the scientists they quote are above being influenced by financial interests.

“The problem is that the media’s conception of scientists–as objective academics cocooned in the ivory tower–keeps reporters from informing readers of financial interests that may motivate scientists’ advocacy. It would be closer to the truth to describe scientists who have management or advisory duties in at least one company as what they are: “academic entrepreneurs,” not scientists…”

Such selective reporting in the major press diminishes journalists from evidence-based fact finders to accomplices who inadvertently delude the public by passing along promotional marketing hype as if it were “scientific research finding.” Science journalists who shield scientists by failing to inform the public, help raise public expectations about medical “breakthroughs” that never materialize. All those reports about the wonders of SSRI antidepressants…gene transfer therapy….hormone replacement therapy…

Peter Gorner of The Chicago Tribune, came up with a remedy: create a new type of beat that includes some aspect of the science beat, and some aspects of a traditional business beat, overseen by an editor who understands the role of money in biotech. “The rules are different in the two fields, and we need to synthesize them.”

An example that stands in sharp contrast to those described by Munro in the Washington Monthly, is superb reporting by Duff Wilson and David Heath of The Seattle Times. These reporters did not shy away from the task of laying bare to the public the intricate financial ties of researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, whose research ethics are the subject of litigation. [See: Uninformed Consent 5 part series. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/uninformed_consent/


Doctor Who?
Scientists are treated as objective arbiters in the cloning debate.
But most have serious skin in the game.
By Neil Munro

There’s hardly an issue more difficult to untangle–or more important to the future of science and medicine–than that of human cloning and stem cells. But for reporters charged with covering the debate, sorting out the questions involved is as difficult as explaining the science behind them.

There’s one argument over whether the government should ban researchers from using embryos that are going to get thrown away at fertility clinics, on the claim that they are human lives even if they’re going to be destroyed anyway. There’s another, slightly different argument, over whether scientists should be allowed to clone adult cells to produce embryos, from which scientists can then extract embryonic stem cells–cells which could, in theory, be transplanted back into the original adult patient for different forms of therapy. There’s still another dispute over whether adult stem cells are even viable alternatives in the event that use of embryonic stem cells is outlawed.

When covering these debates, reporters often try to use university scientists as objective arbiters. Politicians and interest groups may be motivated by ideology, but the scientists–they presume–are sticking to the facts. But the funny thing is, scientists don’t necessarily agree about the facts. For instance, David Prentice, a biologist at Indiana State University, has been quoted in dozens of newspaper articles as an advocate for the position that you can limit the use of embryonic stem cells without hurting scientific research. And then there’s somebody like Irving Weisman, a Stanford scientist and past chair of a prestigious panel on cloning at the National Academy of Sciences, who’s been quoted in over 160 newspaper articles in recent years defending the opposite position–that embryonic stem cells are essential to future advances in medical science and technology.

Part of the explanation, of course, is simply an honest difference of opinion among scientists grappling with difficult emerging questions. But there’s a deeper problem at work which journalists overwhelmingly ignore: These supposedly objective scientists have business interests that overlap with their scientific views. For instance, Prentice specializes in studying stem cells taken from adults, not embryos, and has sought a federal grant from the National Institutes of Health for his work; federal curbs on embryo research would “obviously” free more funds for his approach, he says, and if his research pans out, Prentice will market the resulting procedures via a biotech company–a company which would have better prospects were embryo-cell cloning outlawed by the government. By the same token, Weissman has already made millions of dollars through three companies he’s founded–Systemix Inc., Celltrans Inc., and StemCells Inc., the last two of which he still helps manage–which use stem-cell technology. When President Bush announced last August that he would give narrow support to such technology, the market value of the StemCells Inc. briefly shot up by 45 percent.

But these two scientists aren’t the problem. Both Weissman and Prentice are entirely candid regarding their financial and business interest in the debate over cloning. Rather, the problem lies with the press, which almost never informs its readers that these supposedly disinterested scientists have great financial stakes in the debate. Prentice is invariably cited as an “Indiana State University biologist”; Weissman nearly always as “a professor at Stanford.” And the same goes for dozens of other scientists who mix business and academia, substantially affecting the cloning debate in America and even abroad.

The Doctor Is In

Today, many university scientists are neither teachers nor disinterested experts, but a hybrid–part executive and part researcher–pursuing new and little-understood business strategies. Like most academics, they have university affiliations and spend most of their time performing research. But unlike, say, English professors, their research generates promising new medical patents and technologies, on which scientists can capitalize by launching their own off-campus biotech companies. These companies rarely sell therapies directly to patients. Instead they usually sell the fruits of their research–such as a gene-analysis device or a special type of laboratory animal–to large, established firms. Those larger firms buy their patented research in the hope they can be drawn upon to produce products or therapies for the consumer market. The research performed by academic entrepreneurs thus acts as a kind of catalyst on the broader field of biotechnology, which means that everyone involved–the entrepreneurs, universities, investors, and the firms who license patented technologies–prefer that it be as unrestricted as possible. In this context, stem-cell cloning is especially valuable, both as a commercial technique in and of itself and as a tool that can accelerate research into a myriad of human conditions, from male-pattern baldness to Lou Gehrig’s disease.

By keeping one foot in business and one in the university, these scientist-businessmen get the best from both worlds. As academics, they get plaudits from their peers, the approval of colleagues serving on federal grant-review boards, and early access to hot new discoveries–not to mention federally subsidized laboratory space and an endless supply of underpaid graduate students eager to help develop the next cutting-edge idea. As entrepreneurs, they get access to wealth and the investment capital needed to launch a first, second, or third company.

These academic entrepreneurs are not exotic creatures, but rather the model of what university science is rapidly becoming. Since 1980, according to the Association of University Technology Managers, American universities have spun-off more than 3,000 companies. From 1999 to 2000 alone, universities’ revenues from spin-off companies, licensing deals, and outside investment shot up from $862 million to $1.26 billion.

Spin Doctors

But reporters almost always fail to identify the conflicts of interest that such a business environment spawns, especially when it comes to the cloning debate. Take Harvard’s Doug Melton, who has founded two biotech companies, including Curis Inc., where he is the chief scientist overseeing the development of stem-cell products, including potential therapies that could use embryo cloning. Not surprisingly, Melton is an outspoken advocate of federal support for embryonic stem-cell research, and was one of three experts invited by the White House to brief President Bush last year on the merits of such research. But in 35 out of 36 articles published since January 2000 citing Melton’s support for embryonic stem-cell research, reporters described him only as a Harvard professor; not a single article on Lexis-Nexis cited his work at Curis, other than one I wrote for the National Journal.

In one July 2001 Washington Post article, the paper’s chief science writer, Rick Weiss, quoted Melton saying “it would be very ill-advised to close the door on the production of new [stem-]cell lines.” But Weiss described Melton only as “chairman of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University.” There was no mention of Curis, even though if Bush had chosen to come out against embryonic stem-cell research, Melton’s firm would have had great difficulty raising investment capital. Weiss denies it’s a problem. “Melton has a son who has diabetes,” he says. “Should I mention in every story that he has a son with diabetes? I don’t think so, but that’s certainly one of his motivations, and for all I know, it is a greater motivation than profit from his membership of the board of Curis.”

The Washington Times has made similar omissions. In nine articles during 2000 and 2001, reporter August Gribbin quoted Lawrence Goldstein, whom he described as a professor at the University of California at San Diego. In an August 2001 article, Goldstein defended cloning for therapies, and wondered whether a ban might violate the Constitution. “Does the government really have the constitutional ability,” he asked Gribbin, “to prohibit across the board something that has no obvious harm to people, but could benefit those who are ill?” This is, of course, a perfectly defensible position. But readers might rightly question Goldstein’s motives for offering it if they knew of his role as co-founder of Cytokinetics Inc., a biotech firm in San Diego, or his role as a lobbyist on behalf of the American Society for Cell Biology. Why do these connections matter? Cytokinetics examines human cells for features that could be developed into drugs and therapies for pharmaceutical firms, and so relies on a high pace of discoveries in the field of human cells–discoveries that advocates believe can be accelerated through wide laboratory use of stem cells. The ASCB, which promotes public policies favored by scientists based in companies and universities, favors stem-cell research for similar reasons. But when I asked Gribbin why, he explained that “it was not a business story” and that “I was writing about the news of the day . . . there was no time or intent to [include his financial interests].” Gribbin is not alone: Only one out of 76 articles in various papers quoting Goldstein mentions his business ties.

Conversely, in another article, The Washington Times quoted Indiana State’s David Prentice as an opponent of embryonic cloning, but without disclosing his financial interest in banning embryonic cloning techniques. When asked, Victor Morton, an editor at the Times, said the paper doesn’t have a policy regarding university scientist’s business ties, and usually reprinted wire-service copy as is.

Patent Medicine

Many scientists also have financial interests in the extension or revocation of patents held by their academic competitors on lucrative procedures or products. Harvard’s medical school and related institutions, for instance, generated almost $20 million in 2001 from such biotech patents. But this is another area in which reporters are less than conscientious. For example, two top stem-cell researchers, James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin and John Gearhart of the Johns Hopkins University, won patents on the most widely used methods for extracting stem cells from human embryos and aborted fetuses. The revenue from those patents goes both to the two inventors and to their universities’ deans, department chiefs, and many others. Should Congress decided to curb the use of Thomson and Gearhart’s method, all of them stand to lose millions of dollars.

Yet when the Chicago Tribune ran a profile of Thomson in December 2001, reporters Ronald Kotulak and Peter Gorner depicted Thomson only as “a young, untenured veterinarian and Ph.D. molecular biologist . . . in his lab at the University of Wisconsin,” and then quoted him as saying “I think stem cells can revolutionize human medicine, but it’s going to be a long, drawn-out process.” This prediction is certainly plausible, and contains the appropriate caveat. But readers should also have been told that Thomson and his colleagues stand to make millions of dollars from their patent should embryonic stem-cell cloning come into wide use.

Gorner says he did not include Thomson’s business interests because Thomson “is kind of an innocent” about the financial stakes in the debate. Gorner says he tries hard to include the financial aspects in his science stories, and has written a long piece detailing the finances of the medical center which holds Thomson’s patent. In the Tribune, Gorner says, “we go to great lengths [to get the financial data because] it is just assumed that everyone in the [science] business is on the take, and they are shameless about it.” But he concedes that most of the media’s science reporters are very reluctant to question scientists about their financial interests, partly because such questions would threaten the reporters’ access to cutting-edge science news. “My colleagues are suckers [for university-based entrepreneurs]. I don’t give an inch.”

One of the clearest of these kinds of mistakes was made by The New York Times’ Nicholas Wade in an article on the discovery of a versatile new type of stem cell found in adults, known as “Multipotent Adult Progenitor Cells.” Previously unknown, these cells can be mass-produced for researchers, and may prove very useful for disease therapies. Wade described their discovery by Catherine Verfaillie, a professor at the University of Minnesota, as a significant advance, and then included comments from Stanford’s Weissman and another scientist, Fred Gage of the Salk Institute, which is part of the University of California in San Diego. Both were skeptical of Verfaillie’s discovery, although Weissman did say it could be “very important” if other scientists–himself included–were given some of the cells to verify her claims. But Wade neglected to mention these scientists’ rival interests. Whereas Gage and Weissman are co-founders of Stemcells Inc., which develops techniques for using adult stem cells, Verfaillie’s patented “MAPC” stem cells could steal market share from Stemcells Inc.–and dilute the marketplace value of Weissman’s professional expertise.

When I asked him, however, Wade said that there was no need to mention the rival business interests because they are routine among scientists, and because they pose less of a problem than that caused by the scientists’ professional rivalries. Besides which, “my own feeling is that the reader is not interested,” he said, and the column inches are better used to communicate other information. When I called Cornelia Dean, editor of science news at The New York Times, she responded that “we try to include in our articles all the information people need to make sense of what is going on.” The Times’ policy, she said, is to cite the commercial sponsors of newsworthy medical studies, and to ask quoted scientists about “financial ties.” But she was very reluctant to discuss the problem any further, and seemed particularly surprised when I mentioned that Times op-ed contributor Jerome Groopman, a noted supporter of unfettered stem-cell and cloning research, is not just “a professor of medicine at Harvard” (as the Times op-ed cutlines describe him), but is also a board member of Advanced Tissue Sciences Inc., a biotech company in La Jolla, Calif. “The issue you are talking about is very important . . . [and] you should not assume deficiencies are intentional,” she said as she ended the conversation.

Which Doctor

Why are journalists so lax in describing these businesses and conflicts of interest? For one thing, the academic entrepreneurs do generate many life-saving or useful discoveries. Also, the traditional titles–scientist, professor, or dean–are technically correct, and editors in general are inclined to avoid extensive identification information about sources. And there’s a good reason why: Stories would quickly become unreadable if bogged down by long descriptions of every scientist’s business interests, like warning labels so long that consumers ignore them. Moreover, to say that a conflict of interest exists is not to say that scientists are being dishonest. Many scientists oppose cloning bans in part simply because it is a regulation on their profession, just as coal-mine executives oppose any new regulations on mining, no matter how minor. But many of these oft-quoted scientists do possess, and come from universities and research centers that do possess, a financial interest in one side or the other of the biotech debate. The problem is that the media’s conception of scientists–as objective academics cocooned in the ivory tower–keeps reporters from informing readers of financial interests that may motivate scientists’ advocacy.

It would be closer to the truth to describe scientists who have management or advisory duties in at least one company as what they are: “academic entrepreneurs,” not scientists. Similarly, academic scientists who do not have direct financial stakes in companies, but who still receive income from companies that license their patents, should be described as such: “the recipient of patent royalties.” If quoted scientists are linked to institutions, reporters should note whether those institutions are funded in whole or in part by firms with a stake in what’s being written about. And when quoting university deans and executives, reporters need to check the university’s “technology transfer” programs, whose task is to maximize revenue generation from the sale or licensing of the university’s discoveries to industry. Gorner, at The Chicago Tribune, says one remedy would be a new type of beat that includes some aspect of his science beat, and some aspects of a traditional business beat, overseen by an editor who understands the role of money in biotech. “The rules are different in the two fields, and we need to synthesize them.”

This proposal to better link university-based scientists with their financial interests puts the scientists on an equal plane with other entrepreneurs who stand to gain or lose from Washington’s political debates. Voters already know that arms manufacturers will likely gain if Congress increases the defense budget, that oil executives will likely gain if Congress eases environmental laws, and that automakers will likely gain if federal safety standards are lowered. This understanding allows voters to judge better the credibility of industry claims whenever the industry is embroiled in a national debate. “We probably should [cite business interests] whenever it appears to be relevant,” says Washington Post executive editor Len Downie. “And it appears that we are not doing enough.”

Neil Munro covers the politics of the technology business for National Journal.
The Washington Monthly 733 15th St. NW Suite 1000 Washington DC. 20005.
Original article at: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0211.munro.html

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