In his critique of the current free-market model for funding pharmaceutical research "Bad Rx - Big Pharma & Medical Research" (commentary, Bulletin, Oct. 2003), ethics professor Arthur Schafer argues that, "if biomedical researchers and their universities are to retain public trust, then they should simply not be permitted to put themselves into situations of financial conflict of interest. If the community values public science in the public interest, then it will have to be paid for by public tax dollars."
Three unwarranted assumptions inform Schafer's analysis: the state always knows best; the state always does best; and the state always has the "public interest" at heart.
None of these assumptions has any empirical validity. Indeed, they are routinely invalidated, particularly in Canada, whose current regime has been implicated in one scandal over use of tax dollars after another, many involving financial conflict of interest.
Before we rush to convert drug companies into quasi-Crown corporations and drug researchers into state minions, Schafer should reveal how many lifesaving drugs have been invented in command-and-control regimes like the former Soviet Union, or how the public interest would be served by giving more control to an unaccountable and self-serving bureaucracy that can't even provide Canadians with timely medical treatment or protection from tainted blood and contaminated water.
Schafer is to be commended for highlighting ethically indefensible conflict-of-interest features of the current funding model. What he fails to recognize is that his prescription for change - putting the development of drugs under rigid centralized control - would end up doing more harm than good. How ethical would that be?
Anthropology, University of Manitoba