Poor Leona Aglukkaq is getting ripped apart in the news these days for appointing Bernard Prigent, vice-president and medical director of Pfizer Canada, to the governing council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The CIHR is the major funding organization for life science research in Canada, distributing some $800 million of taxpayers' money to various facilities in the form of tax-free research grants.
It's easy to see why people are upset about this, the kneejerk reaction is to see this as a classic conflict of interest, a fairy tale where the benevolent non-partisan funding organization is corrupted by that most evil of nemeses, Big Pharma - all because of a plot by the Big Bad Government.
The error here is that Pfizer isn't eligible for most of that research money, which makes them ineligible for a conflict of interest. However, over half the CIHR governing council are university professors from research centres that do actually compete for CIHR funding. Part of success on a CIHR grant application is based on how many other grants have been given to your institute. This strikes me as being more of the classic conflict of interest as most people define it.
I don't think the problem is with Big Pharma making its way into CIHR. Business has a place in science no matter how many people - researchers and laypeople alike - wish it weren't so. The perspective on science is different between academia and industry. Both have their pros and cons, and I think that CIHR and academia in general might profit from exploring some of the alternative ways of looking at science.
My problem is that when I look though the CIHR website, I can see that Pfizer has been spending millions on funding CIHR grants over the last couple of years - and now an exec is on the board. This looks like patronage of the basest sort, but it isn't conflict of interest. Even if it does leave the same sour taste in your mouth.
What I don't find immediately apparent is what kind of return Pfizer is getting on their millions of dollars of investment, apart from tax breaks. A single position on a board of roughly 20 members isn't exactly overwhelming power or voice in the policy or direction of CIHR. What's so great about that?