Big Pharma is famous for trying to seduce doctors into prescribing their products by giving them goodies and inviting them on junkets. Often, that amounts to naked bribery. But they also offer to pay independent scientists to participate in meetings, to give advice to board members, or to speak to said junkets. That’s more of a grey area.
A growing number of scientists are now turning down these invitations, or doing the gigs for free, according to a report by Gina Kolata in the New York Times. Several scientists are quoted in the story as saying they feel their reputation is compromised by taking these payments, even when there’s really no conflict of interest involved. And if that’s how they feel, I can understand them turning down the cash. On the other hand, it is important that the voice of independent scientists be heard in pharmaceutical industry discussions and on their governing boards. And since expertise is a commodity which individual scientists invest heavily in over a lifetime of research, it doesn’t seem so outrageous that they should get paid for it. That’s particularly true for people in the increasingly common position of being quasi-freelance, having to bring in most of your research money yourself. Time you’re spending talking to industry execs is time you’re not at the lab, or with patients, or crunching data. I’m all for avoiding conflicts of interest. But if we get so paranoid about being seen to “consort with the enemy” that we won’t even engage in discussion with industry, science will be the loser.