Monday, November 7, 2011

An only partly deserved bad name?

There's been another blockbuster event for Big Pharma.  From the story in the New York Times:
The British drug company GlaxoSmithKline said Thursday that it has agreed to pay $3 billion to settle United States government civil and criminal investigations into its sales practices. 
The cases against GlaxoSmithKline include illegal marketing of Avandia, a diabetes drug that was severely restricted last year after it was linked to heart risks. Company whistleblowers and federal prosecutors said the company had paid doctors and manipulated medical research to promote the drug.
Now, Big Pharma is avidly seeking blockbusters.  As patents end and competition grows for previous bonanzas like statins and Viagra, they want their next ticket to Easy Street.  One sublime object of their desires is male baldness, where if a pill-based cure is found will put a top rather than toupee on a huge market, so to speak.  Unfortunately, they seem to want to make it to Easy Street quite a bit too much: this story is of a $3 billion penalty for misconduct in marketing a particular drug, Avandia, that was aimed at diabetes but also seemed to take aim at the heart in ways the company purportedly did not come clean about.

This blockbuster fine rather than find, is not what GlaxoSmithKline wanted. But it's not the first of its kind, and one can only hope that their avarice and profit margins are not such that they think this is a net-profitable trade-off.  The stories are becoming more numerous of conflicts of interest, incomplete revealing of data, and so on, associated with drugs, reports of drug trials, and other lucrative aspects of medical practice.  And then there is the publicity hype machine in which funders, researchers, journals, and public media are co-conspirators.

But there is a more serious side to this than the loss of Big Bucks by a few companies.  Big Fraud can give a Big Bad Name to all of science.  Now all of science is vulnerable to vanity, and should be monitored and held to account much more than has been the case.  But no matter how venal, or how implicitly tied to constraining beliefs, that science is, and no matter the yielding to temptation to dissemble or massage results to favor the flow of fame and finances, science is on the whole a very clean game.  Outright cheating is very rare, and especially regarding Big Findings: they may  more often be wrong or over-stated than right, but very strong claims in major research will quickly get the scrutiny it deserves.  That makes real fakery hard to get away with (though there was a story just last week about a prominent Dutch social psychologist who managed to get away with it for some time, until his grad students blew the whistle, and he was fired).  And scientists can't withstand the fines, much less the censure, that would follow.

So no matter whether or not there is the kind of restraint and oversight that could liberate science from some of its problems, of which we often take note, the overall honorable nature of this profession should not be overshadowed by the genuine Big Crooks that do occasionally pop-up, especially in the corporate sector (professor crooks are usually very small time).

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