Funding Medical Innovation

In a recent National Affairs essay titled “Removing Barriers to Medical Innovation,” Thomas Stossel, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, cautions against “pharmaphobia,” a term he has coined for the widespread vilification of the private pharmaceutical industry. Stossel, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has written lengthily on the subject, most notably in his book titled Pharmaphobia: How the Conflict of Interest Myth Undermines American Medical Innovation (2015). In this particular essay, Stossel describes how the demonization of private industry inhibits medical innovation by hindering collaboration between the industry and the academy.   Moreover, he argues that the brightest future of medical innovation will be found in academic research that is done in partnership with private industry, rather than in publicly funded academic research.

Stossel refutes the common perception that publicly-funded academic researchers, part of what he terms the “government-academic biomedical complex,” are the parties primarily responsible for medical innovations, which the profiteering pharmaceutical industry then develops for market.  Instead, he argues that private industry, and not academia, is where most medical innovation already happens.  In fact, according to multiple investigations, “85% of the drugs approved by the FDA since 1988 arose solely from research and development performed within the industry.”  In addition, most publicly-funded research has little to do with treatment of disease. Stossel cites a study of over 25,000 “research articles published by academic investigators in prestigious basic biomedical science journals,” in which only 20 out of the 25,000 articles resulted in clinical trials.

One of the reasons Stossel cites for this is an “obsession with novelty,” as researchers compete for funding and strive to impress their peers, stuck in a cycle where the “measure of value of a researcher’s work is not medical innovation, but publication in prestigious journals that, in turn, serve as the currency for obtaining research grant funding.”  Thus, “making sure that findings are reliable…is far less interesting to academics than breaking new ground.”

Instead, Stossel proposes that a “private-academic partnership would allocate resources and talent far more effectively” than the current prevailing model of publicly funded academic research.  Private industry is naturally more driven toward innovation than researchers competing for public grant funding.  Moreover, medical innovation requires capabilities that are for the most part unique to the pharmaceutical industry, such as “drug formulation, manufacturing, quality control, procurement, market research, regulatory affairs, finance, toxicology, and many others.”  Stossel posits that such a partnership between private industry and academic research could best be realized through a “grassroots strategy” in which private companies invite academic researchers to collaborate on projects.


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