Giving Science A Bad Name

As a former psychologist who fastidiously dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s during my NIH-sponsored Ph.D. and postdoctoral research, and as a parent disturbed by our culture’s tendency to overmedicate, this story in the New York Times totally got my knickers in a twist. According to the Times, an inquiry led by Iowa Republican Charles Grassley has revealed troubling practices by Massachusetts General Hospital child psychiatrist Joseph Biederman. Biederman is a major player in the movement to increase the use of risky antipsychotic medicines in children. Among other drug makers, he has close ties to Johnson & Johnson, maker of the antipsychotic medication Risperdal.

Here’s a summary of what’s been uncovered so far:

1. Conflict of interest. Biederman leaned heavily on Johnson & Johnson to fund a research center at MGH, with one of the primary goals being “to move forward the commercial goals of J & J.”

2. Financial (non)disclosure. Biederman has pocketed and not disclosed vast sums of money from the drug industry, to the tune of “at least $1.4 million in outside income from Johnson & Johnson and other makers of antipsychotic medicines.”

3. Data suppression. In 2002, Biederman and Johnson & Johnson presented data to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, but suppressed the numbers that didn’t fit their story. Specifically, placebos improved just as well as kids given Risperdal (the dependent measures weren’t indicated), but only the improvement following use of Risperdal was reported.

The relationship between for-profit companies and the medical community has long been complex, particularly related to issue #1 above. However, assuming all of this evidence holds, Biederman’s professional and financial greed are deplorable. From a research perspective, it’s behavior such as this that makes grant processes more complicated for applicants (by eventually adding layers of red tape to attempt to safeguard against such practices), and also makes the general public wary of researchers (I’m speaking from experience, as someone who worked with clinical populations during my postdoctoral fellowship at MGH).

And as a parent, I can't help but feel even more skeptical about pharmaceutical research, which I realize – in blanket terms – is not fair to those working (I hope) for the greater good. One thing is for sure though; if my child was treated or included in a study by Biederman's team, I'd sure as hell be knocking on his door for answers right now.

Image credit: Massachusetts General Hospital