[Fwd: Science Reporters Don't Notice Conflicts of Interest]

cor at exchangenet.net cor at exchangenet.net
Wed Dec 4 18:05:45 EST 2002

-------- Original Message --------
From: "VERACARE" <veracare at ahrp.org>
Subject: Science Reporters Don't Notice Conflicts of Interest
Newsgroups: misc.activism.progressive

Contact: Vera Hassner Sharav
e-mail: veracare at ahrp.org


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
cocooned in the ivory tower--keeps reporters from informing readers of
interests that may motivate scientists' advocacy.
It would be closer to the truth to describe scientists who have management
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
SSRI antidepressants...gene transfer therapy....hormone replacement

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.

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

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

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

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

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'

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

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