In this era of looming sequestration, budget stalemates and increased scrutiny of all federal funding, universities across the country are constantly being pressed to obtain the money necessary to fund critical research. Duke is better positioned to maintain and expand its research operations, even in an era of decreased National Institute of Health resources. Duke receives a significant portion of its research dollars from corporate sources and has led the nation in total corporate research funding received for the past 10 years.
Although this reliance on corporate funding has allowed Duke to maintain a robust research program in a still-difficult economic climate, the increasing importance of corporate funding raises a host of potential issues. The implication that corporate funding is inherently tainted in a way other funding sources are not is unjustified; while we should avoid conflating the potential conflict of interest with substantive issues in research design, the misalignment between the priorities of corporate funders and the university demands heightened scrutiny of this commonplace practice.
Simply put, there is the possibility that the source of funding impacts on the quality of the results. Multiple studies indicate that the funding source for a research project can have a significant impact on the outcome of that project. A 2010 review by a German medical journal found that there was a significant disparity in how researchers assessed drugs depending on who funded their projects. When research dollars came from the pharmaceutical industry, clinical trials were more positive about new drug treatments. Although Duke has implemented stringent reporting requirements to mitigate potential sources of bias, the University has experienced issues in the past. In 2011, a pulmonologist at Duke University hospital was cited by the US Senate for not reporting significant financial ties to Sanofi-Aventis after testifying against the introduction of a new generic alternative to the market.
It is certainly possible that the potential for conflicts of interest constitutes merely a cosmetic issue. Although the perception that Duke’s research is somehow compromised raises issues of credibility, in an era of constrained funding, it does not in itself indict Duke’s reliance on corporate funding.
Perhaps more alarming is the possibility that reliance on corporate research funding could constrain the types of research that Duke researchers pursue. Clearly, corporations may be more willing to fund projects dealing with subjects in which they have a vested financial interest. The range of subjects falling under the phrase “knowledge in the service of society” is more expansive than those corporations may be interested in funding. To maintain the autonomy needed to pursue the full range of socially beneficial research, Duke must seek to avoid overreliance on any one source of research funding.
Interactions between corporations and universities are a necessary if somestimes unsavory reality: The line between collaborative dependence and compromised values is a thin one, and often difficult to place. While we commend Duke for its impressive utilization of non-governmental funding sources, we caution administrators to be proactive and diligent in mitigating potential biases, maintaining credibility and ensuring research activities live up to the full measure of its founding mission.