Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Get that Pfizer out of my CIHR

I was surprised to have been so much out of the loop when I learned on the CBC radio show "The Current" that one of the Pfizer VPs had been appointed to the governing council of CIHR (our main health funding agency). Now I love to hate on Pfizer as much as the next guy, especially since one of my good friends works there, and I'm not a huge fan of off-label uses of drugs. But this really made me raise an eyebrow. The thinking behind the decision to appoint Dr Prigent was to bring "much needed" commercialization expertise to CIHR and to help "align the interests of CIHR with those of the pharmaceutical industry". This is not my interpretation of the facts but a direct quote from Dr. Prigent. Now I was under the impression that the mandate of CIHR was to improve the health of Canadians by promoting scientific discovery, not to commercialize products or post better quarterly results. I fully understand that discoveries need to be turned into products in order to reach patients, but I'm not sure that this is the imperative of CIHR. Now most people sitting on the governing council have a conflict of interest, because they stand to gain from getting more funding to their home institution, but I'm afraid this is the beginning of a shift towards more corporate regency over funding focus. Even our neighbours to the south don't allow that. I'd love to hear arguments for increased focus on commercialization in the comments, but If like me you think there is too much potential for conflicts of interest you can sign this petition...


rob said...

You have to agree that this is absurd. I agree that he can probably offer some very good insight and unique experience. However, how is it that Pfizer agrees to let him take that post if it isn't in their best interest, including in their competitive best interest. I'm sure Pfizer is paying him a boatload of cash, and I would think they would want that money well spent. I'm sure he would also offer the same advice in return for his Pfizer salary so why should taxpayers support him. (although this position probably pays him something that would be considered charity work in comparison to what Pfizer pays him. (I'm totally guessing, I have no idea.))
Also why should one person get two kickass jobs while others in this economy have none.
This really sounds like something that happens in "other countries."

Anonymous said...

FYI, the CIHR mandate: "To excel, according to internationally accepted standards of scientific excellence, in the creation of new knowledge and its translation into improved health for Canadians, more effective health services and products and a strengthened Canadian health care system." link

So yes, part of their mandate is commercialization of products, contrary to the OP.

Also, you can't receive CIHR funds if you work for a for-profit organization, unless you're also affiliated with a university. link.

rob said...

Good point about CIHR mandate. That makes perfect sense. I also agree that a Pfizer VP probably has some awesome insight into making commercialization of research a possibility. I guess it's just holding both positions at the same time seems like a bad idea.
Also, I didn't mean to suggest that Dr. Prigent would directly fund Pfizer's research. However he could certainly direct research in a way to avoid competition with academia or direct research to academics that help support Pfizer's drug claims while stifling others ect...
Dr. Prigent is not affiliated with a university. It seems strange that he can get CIHR funds in the form of a salary.

Kamel said...

Interesting situation, to say the least. I do wonder about the rest of the council and who makes it up. If he's one of a dozen voices, then I definitely worry less about the pull one guy in particular has - and clearly somebody with his type of commercialization experience is valuable. (Hey CIHR, I worked for a drug company, can I have the job?)

Ideally he would step down from his corporate position to take this job, like Collins leaving his BioLogos position when named director of the NIH. I'm sure there would still be grumbling, but maybe a bit dampened.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but I assume nothing will really happen, he'll keep both posts, and we'll see little perceptible change in how things are done, for good or bad. Until a Merck VP joins in. And then Eli-Lilly. etc.

Bayman said...

Not surprising. CIHR focus has been moving more and more towards two all-encompassing goals:

1) Funding licensed physicians with as much as a passing interest in "research". 2) Funding the production of research that supports patent applications and therefore profitable products that appeal to private sector money.

If you accept these priorities, this appointment is a no-brainer. If the appointment somehow feels wrong to you, you take issue with CIHR's priorities.

Perhaps because:
1) You believe that the tax-payer's research dollars should be spent on generating knowledge that strives to best benefit the taxpayer at large, rather than solely prioritizing the needs and wants of a small number of profit-driven, private business interests.

2) You wonder if the CIHR only funds the commercialization of knowledge, who will be funding the generation of this knowledge in the first place, ie BASIC BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH?

3) You sense that an obsession with the commercialization of knowledge is built on the faulty premise that excessive, unused biomedical knowledge is just sitting around unused. "If only scientists would focus more on patent applications and business proposals, maybe we could do something useful for a change."

4) You have observed that in order to generate profitable technologies for the corporate sector, the CIHR scheme relies on a low-paid workforce consisting of a high number of "highly qualified" post-docs and graduate students. You note that they signed on to the whole scheme with the expectation of getting an education and scientific mentorship so that they could some day contribute to the intellectual development of their society (ie, "They're difficult"). If they realize they are solely expected to become product-creating robots, will they start quitting and head over to the Toyota factory, where they can get a union card, competitive wages and a mortgage for a house in the suburbs? Will the whole CIHR scheme then collapse, without the cheap workforce? Will industry be forced to hire and pay more of its own scientists capable of doing basic research? Oh wait, all we've trained is scientifically-illiterate robots who are good for nothing...wait, maybe we can use them in the tar sands?

But if you disagree with the CIHR's direction, think again. We live in a democracy and this is what the voters have been asking for repeatedly. This is the social-political current we are riding...