Glass Houses: The Power of Money in Bioethics Research

Jocelyn Downie


In recent years, many bioethicists have spent considerable time and ink doing what might (uncharitably) be characterized as “throwing stones” regarding financial conflicts of interest and health research. For example, bioethicists have been critical of drug companies sponsoring university research and universities commercializing their research (Downie and Herder 2007). They have painstakingly connected the dots — Olivieri, the University of Toronto, Apotex, . . . money (Downie, Baird, and Thompson 2002). Healy, Eli Lilly, . . . money (Healy 2002, 2003). Vioxx, Merck, . . . money (Topol 2004; Beller 2005). Gelsinger, the University of Pennsylvania, . . . money (Gelsinger and Shamoo 2008). These critiques have been important, and we should continue to critically reflect on the place and power of money in health research and health care. However, it is also important to step back, cast a critical eye on the power of money in bioethics research itself, and ask whether bioethics researchers are living in glass houses. In this paper, the very lens that has been focused on science and medical research is used to look at bioethics research and both direct, and indirect, conflicts of interest for bioethics researchers. I first review the need (real or perceived) for money in bioethics research, the sources of money, and some features of the money that are important for the subsequent analysis. Next, I explore a range of possible objectives for the transfer of money into bioethics research. I then examine the effects of this transfer and discuss some questions and concerns that I have about the role of money in bioethics research. In an effort to end on a constructive note, I close with some suggestions for possible responses to the questions and concerns — suggestions concerning what bioethics researchers, as individuals and as a community, could do to harness the power of money in bioethics research in more positive and progressive ways.

I use Canadian examples throughout this paper as it is the context within which I live and work and so it is what I know best. That said, the issues that I raise are relevant for many other countries, and I hope that bioethics researchers in these other countries will reflect on the Canadian experience as it relates to their own. Glass houses are not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon (Eckenwiler and Cohn 2007).


Health Law

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