Should Pfizer VP Sit on CIHR’s Governing Council?
Controversy has arisen over the appointment of one of Pfizer’s VPs to the governing council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). (For those who don’t know, CIHR is the Canadian government’s main agency for funding research in the area of health.)
Here’s the story, as reported by the CBC: Appointment of Pfizer exec to health funding body criticized
Prominent bioethicists have expressed alarm at the recent appointment of a senior pharmaceutical executive to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the government’s funding arm for medical research.
They hope to have their concerns about the three-year appointment of Dr. Bernard Prigent, vice-president and medical director of Pfizer Canada, to the governing council of the CIHR addressed at a parliamentary meeting Monday….
The CBC story also refers to a petition recently begun, in opposition to Prigent’s appointment. Here it is: Petition Against the Appointment of the VP of Pfizer Canada to CIHR Governing Council.
The main worry here is conflict of interest. Perception plays a big role in conflict of interest. In this regard, both the government and their critics are wrong. It’s not a matter of whether Prigent will be able to avoid letting his obligations to his shareholders affect his obligations as a member of the Council. The problem is whether his job at Pfizer will jeopardize the reputation of CIHR (and more particularly its governing council) by rendering its judgment suspect. I don’t know anything about Dr. Prigent & he may well be an individual of outstanding integrity. The point is, that doesn’t matter. Even if he does exercise his best, publicly-minded judgment on behalf of CIHR, his presence could still render the governing council’s judgment suspect.
It’s also worth noting that opposition to this appointment involves 2 separable issues. One is the appointment of someone from the pharmaceutical industry to CIHR’s governing council. The other is the appointment of someone from Pfizer, in particular.
So one issue is Pfizer’s less-than-stellar reputation. As the CBC story notes, Pfizer recently paid a record-breaking $2.3 billion fraud settlement. And I’ve also blogged about just a handful of the many cases of wrongdoing at Pfizer, including here and here and here. And because of Pfizer’s poor reputation, I think the petition-writers are right that Prigent is a bad choice to be on CIHR’s governing council. Pfizer’s reputation is not good, and so many people will justifiably be suspicious of the intentions and judgment of its senior executives. That’s crucial to the worry about conflict of interest.
The other issue is whether anyone from the pharmaceutical industry could ever be on CIHR’s governing council, and that I think is a harder issue, one on which the writers of the petition have overreached. I for one would need to know much more about the governing council, its mandate, and its operations, to know whether an executive from a small or mid-sized pharmaceutical company with a good reputation could be valuable in that role. “Divergence of interests” between a company’s shareholders and the public isn’t sufficient reason to exclude executives from that company. Nobody’s interests are perfectly aligned with the public’s. What matters is whether the divergence is sufficient to render an individual’s advice suspect in a way that cannot be remedied through standard mechanisms used to mitigate the effects of conflict of interest (mechanisms such as disclosure and recusal). So simply working for industry doesn’t strike me as an insurmountable flaw, particularly if (if!) the governing council’s role makes an intimate understanding of the drug industry useful.
But the main point remains: it’s very hard to support the inclusion of an executive from this pharmaceutical company on the governing council of Canada’s most important health-research-funding organization.