Donate Today

Consumer Watchdog has protested strings-attached grants from Big Oil to universities, including clauses that allow corporate control of patents and secret offices on campus. Oil companies took lessons from the agricultural industry's history at land-grant colleges, but the real corporate pioneers of this tactic were drug companies. Here, from the Century Foundation's Maggie Mahar and Niko Karvounis, is a concise history of the legislation that opened the classroom door to Big Pharma, and the harmful consequences to disease research.

Here's the most eye-opening example of the consequences of the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, passed in the first frenzy of Reagan-Era deregulation and corporatizationof health care:

Consider the case of Shiseido, a Japanese cosmetic firm, and Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital. Since 1989, Shiseido has given Mass General almost $200 million in order to secure first rights to discoveries by hospital dermatologists. The Shiseido/Harvard deal also included the formation of a joint company, the Cutaneous Biology Research Center, dedicated to dermatological research.

One cannot help but pause to wonder if Harvard, with all of its wealth (both in terms of dollars, and in human capital), might not fund biological research that is pointed in a more useful direction. These days dermatology is without doubt, a profit center: baby-boomers want to look younger and better. But they face problems more serious than "barnacles of age": Alzheimers, for instance, or acute macular degeneration, which is expected to become the leading cause of blindness among boomers.

Nevertheless, Harvard took the $200 million and now must focus a considerable share of its energy and resources on dermatology. Without a shred of irony Shiseido's website proudly touts the Biology Research Center as "an industrial-academic complex."

This phrase, "industrial-academic complex"-or, as most people put it, the academia-industrial complex-is the perfect encapsulation of university and business links in a post-Bayh-Dole world. In the example above, it's not a question of transferring technology, it's a question of institutional collusion. In fact, it's not just technology that's being transferred to drug companies-it's the entire research process, including the power to decide where to focus resources.

Mahar and Karvounis are thorough in connecting the dots:

[I]n 1980 the Bayh-Dole Act was passed, and the face of medical research in America was forever altered. The bill would bring academic institutions into the commercial world in a way that, at the time, seemed to ensure medical progress. Nature magazine offers a concise overview of the legislation, explaining that it "shifted the incentive structure that governed research and [the] development . . . of federally funded [medical] inventions by allowing institutions to own inventions resulting from federally sponsored research and to exclusively license those inventions." In other words, after Bayh-Dole, a university research team that came up with a drug could patent it and sell it to businesses.

This may seem hard to imagine today, but before Bayh-Dole, there was no such collaboration between those who invented a drug and for-profit companies. Federally-funded research was considered a public good, owned by everybody and nobody. If, say, Doctor A created a breakthrough cancer drug at Harvard, Doctor B at Stanford had free reign to experiment with it as needed to improve it-as did other academics. There were no significant legal hurdles to open, ongoing collaboration and little profit attached to research.


What the legislators did not entirely understand is that the best research scientists in academia work as hard as they can whether or not there is hope of personal profit. They compete, not for money, but for fame within their field -and the enormous personal satisfaction of knowing that you have made a lasting contribution to medicine. Dangling $100,000 in front of them may well get their attention, but it won't make them more creative or more industrious-though it may make them set their own best ideas aside to do whatever the person with the $100,000 wants them to do.


Unfortunately, today drug industry ties are endemic in medical academia, and not just at the institutional level. An October 2007 JAMA survey found that out of 459 department chairs at medical schools, 60 percent had some form of personal relationship with industry. These relationships included serving as a consultant (27%), as a member of a scientific advisory board (27%), as a paid speaker (14%), as an officer (7%), as a founder (9%), or as member of the board of directors (11%). The same survey found that two-thirds of medical school departments had relationships with industry.

And just as drug companies are intervening in the research process earlier and earlier, they're also reaching medical researchers in their formative years. A 2005 JAMA study found that the average exposure of a given third-year medical student to the drug industry was one gift or sponsored activity per week. Of 826 surveyed medical students, 93.2 percent were asked or required by a physician to attend at least one sponsored lunch over the course of the school year.

This is all troubling and it raises an important question. When universities are married to industry from the level of individual med students all the way up to the institution's top scientists, who is left to engage in medical research that's not tied to industry?

The whole report is well worth a read, including the part about Novartis subsidizing 40% of all the research at one department of UC Berkeley. And about promising drugs being derailed by corporate infighting.