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More on appointment of Pfizer exec to CIHR board

December 10, 2009

The controversy over the appointment of Pfizer Canada V-P Dr. Bernard Prigent to the governing council of CIHR continues to spread. Yesterday, the debate was the lead item on CBC Radio One’s national current affairs porgram, The Current (you can listen to the broadcast online). While Dr. Prigent (wisely, I figure) declined to participate, the program interviewed two figures near the heart of the debate.

Dr. Jocelyn Downie is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at Dalhousie University, and was one of the creators of the petition denouncing Dr. Prigent’s appointment. She spoke passionately about what she sees as an intractable conflict of interest between Dr. Prigent’s role as a Pfizer executive and his new role on the CIHR governing council.

Dr. Jean Rouleau, Dean of Medicine at Université de Montréal and CIHR governing board member, defended Dr. Prigent’s appointment. Dr. Rouleau emphasized that Dr. Prigent was recruited as an individual, not as a Pfizer representative, and that Dr. Prigent will be held to the same ethical standards as any other member of council.

Host Anna Maria Tremonte seemed to hint at a possible conflict of interest between Dr. Rouleau himself and Pfizer, asking him about a collaborative project between he and the drug company. Instead of undermining the appointment, her line of questioning effectively supported the appointment of someone from industry onto the board. Dr. Rouleau pointed out that he approached Pfizer to test one of its drugs as part of a project in his lab. The test was unsuccessful, and that was the end of the partnership for that project. The description underlined the generally positive working relationship between pharma and academia in R&D, and undermined notions that companies like Pfizer want to subvert the academic research process.

The debate about whether a current industry executive should serve on the boards of public funding agencies is worth having (see Jim’s comments from an earlier post for a commendable contribution to the debate), but this issue runs the risk of becoming just another political issue, which will be to the detriment of the research community. Becoming a political weapon for the opposition will warp the issues, and will prevent real and profitable discussion from taking place. Opposition MPs calling for the government to remove Dr. Prigent has little to do with research policy and lots to do with making the government look bad. Being a pawn in a political game is not a good long-term strategy for the research community.

There is an especial danger in this debate in conflating two distinct strains of criticism – the conflict of interest criticism, and the criticism of Pfizer in particular. Smearing Dr. Prigent with Pfizer’s misconduct reeks of opportunism and unfair play. “Big pharma” (especially Pfizer) has plenty of enemies willing to attack on any issue, and allowing Dr. Prigent’s appointment to simply become another battleground for these attacks will not serve the research community’s interests.

As for potential conflicts of interest involving Dr. Prigent, surely these can be addressed. Indeed, the CIHR governing board is surely familiar with dealing with conflicts of interest, insofar as most of the governing members are surely recipients of CIHR research funding. We expect, and assume, that our academic representatives can act in a fair and ethical way, why not extend the same expectation and assumption to Dr. Prigent? I’m not convinced that the conflict of interest issue, while challenging, is insurmountable.

My concern, as I stated in my last post, is what the appointment signifies for CIHR’s overall direction. Dr. Alain Beaudet, president of CIHR, told a House of Commons committee that Dr. Prigent’s “expertise” is necessary, and that CIHR and the pharmaceutical industry need to “align their vision” to be competitive in health research on the world stage. I’m more interested in what CIHR hopes to gain from Dr. Prigent’s expertise. If CIHR is looking for guidance on how to build bridges between academia and industry, to the mutual benefit of both, then this appointment is hard to criticize. If, on the other hand, Dr. Prigent has been appointed to help CIHR drive “innovation” by importing the methods of industry, by moving CIHR towards a “user”-focused model of research, by “aligning their visions”, then I think there is a real danger that CIHR may lose its way.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    December 10, 2009 14:35

    I was impressed by Anna-Maria Tremonte’s questions to both guests. She asked significant questions and got to the issues. My take was that the points raised by Dr. Downie were overly simplistic (she used a lot of metaphors – poisoning the well, etc.) and ignored the fact that we have to deal with conflicts of interest all of the time. To tar Dr. Prigent with the Pfizer guilt was disingenuous. Dr. Rouleau’s answers were sometimes poorly constructed and seemed peripheral to the question but then he brought it back (such as the point about his study showing the Pfizer drug did not work).

    The quote from Dr. Beaudet was more worrying – alignment of vision. But did he mean what it sounded like he meant? Clearly, the pharmaceutical industry vision is to maximize profits through effective generation of new drugs. That is their business. CIHR, on the other hand, should be aiming to promote the science of medicine such that we move to a better level of healthcare through better treatments as well as better prevention. That latter goal might be at odds with pharma since if everyone was healthier, pharma would have less patients to sell to. I interpret Dr. Beaudet’s comment as meaning to be aligning tools so that, where appropriate, CIHR can better work with pharma. That is, to ensure pharma and CIHR can interact/interface more effectively where it makes sense, since pharma is a critical partner for delivering better healthcare.

    It is good to see discussion but we must be careful not to let this turn into ad hominum attacks to discredit a meritorious and distinguished individual. Afterall, was that not the appalling government tactic in dealing with Richard Colvin?

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