The Pros and Cons of For-Profit Research

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Ravi Parikh, an oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, discusses the ideals behind why for-profit research should be taken seriously.

Parikh explains one of the cons of for-profit research, saying, “It’s easy to understand why people distrust for-profit research. For-profit industries like the pharmaceutical industry have spent decades trying to influence studies to get more of their products onto the market. Decades of corporate influence in medical research have led to a growth of conflict of interest policies, forcing researchers to disclose any ties with for-profit industries. Some have argued to go a step further—to eliminate the involvement of for-profit industries in academic research.”

He adds to this, stating that “even though academic journals and meetings don’t strictly ban for-profit research, the majority of studies are led by academic physicians. As a result, most patients who want to participate to test a drug or device need to go to an academic center that may be hours from home.”

There are several trends that make elimination of the for-profit industry in research impossible—and maybe even dangerous:

  • First, government research allocations—which used to be the predominant form of funding—are becoming more limited. In the 1960s and 1970s, the government funded more than 70% of all basic science research. That federal share dropped below 50% for the first time in 2015. And, if President Donald Trump’s budget proposals ever becomes a reality, organizations such as the National Science Foundation could face a 12% cut in their allocations.
  • Second, patient data is increasingly in the hands of for-profit industries. Insurance firms and other for-profit companies have been collecting patient data that yields important information that could be used to shape medical care and health policy.
  • Finally, many talented people are increasingly working in the for-profit sector to advance science. Much of the advances in artificial intelligence, for example, have come from tech companies such as Google. These technologies hold the potential to improve the accuracy of interpreting radiology images or pathology data. Physicians and policymakers should be encouraging companies to present their work if it can benefit patients—rather than bar them from medical conferences and academic journals.

The highlighted “pro” of for-profit research is described well by Parikh, who says, “Important research will increasingly be conducted, funded or facilitated by for-profit companies. Admittedly, researchers and patients will need to be on guard: Patient informed consent will be more important than ever. And for-profit companies will need to follow appropriate research practices—including publishing negative results that may hurt their bottom-line and releasing analysis plans well in advance of publishing their research results—that are equally or more strict than most academic researchers follow.”

He also brings up a valid point that “these for-profit companies may need to make their data public so that independent bodies can confirm that their findings are accurate.”

“With these safeguards in place, patients and academics should be open to interactions with the for-profit industry to advance research. Otherwise, industries are unlikely to be motivated to use their data and expertise to improve public health,” says Parikh, summarizing (in our opinion) the biggest pro and con of for-profit research.