On Monday afternoon, President Eric Kaler held an hour-long "conversation" with faculty members in the Academic Health Center. For most of the hour Kaler fielded softball questions from the moderator and said nothing especially controversial. He did not address the case of Dan Markingson or any other ethical misconduct in the Department of Psychiatry. But I was alarmed to hear his enthusiastic remarks about ramping up university collaborations with private industry, especially in light of recent research scandals. I was especially taken aback by Kaler's rather dismissive comments about conflict-of-interest regulations. So I had a look at his recent "State of the University" address and read this passage:
"Our new vice president for research Brian Herman has begun a strategic
planning process for his office, and he wants to promote collaboration
between researchers in all disciplines and to increase
public-private partnerships. Of course, I strongly support that..."
"Now, you know I’ve been on a quest to “free” our organization from
unnecessary administrative burden—those that we impose on ourselves
because we have a low tolerance for risk, or because we’re afraid a
misdeed of two decades ago will reappear again."
"I expect and insist we will always meet our legal and regulatory obligations. At the same time, however, we
must continue to recalibrate our risk tolerance. That means we must
look at our own internal policies and ask the question—do they meet—or
do they exceed—our legal or regulatory requirements?"
are excessively burdensome, going beyond what the feds or other entities
require us to do, we should change them…or at least make a conscious
decision not to!"
Now I'm not entirely sure what Kaler means with phrases such as "unnecessary administrative burden" or "low tolerance for risk" or "excessively burdensome" regulatory requirements. Nor am I sure what he means by a "misdeed of two decades ago." He could be referring to either of the two university psychiatrists that the FDA investigated and barred from conducting research, one of whom was sentenced to federal prison, or the crippling sanctions imposed on the university by the NIH after the Najarian scandal. But the current problems at the university are not the result of any excessive regulatory burden. They are the result of industry-funded university investigators ignoring research regulations, repeatedly failing to meet their ethical obligations, and fearing no sanctions whatsoever. University officials have repeatedly defended this misconduct or looked the other way. To suggest that the university needs to "recalibrate its risk tolerance" is an insult to the research subjects who are being asked to bear those risks.