‘Deal with the Devil’: Harvard Medical School Faculty Grapple with Increased Industry Research Funding

As Harvard Medical School research increasingly leans on funding from biopharmaceutical companies to supplement government funding, many HMS researchers have embraced their financial support. Others are more wary.
By Veronica H. Paulus and Akshaya Ravi

Harvard Medical School resides in the University's Longwood campus in Boston.
Harvard Medical School resides in the University's Longwood campus in Boston. By Jonathan G. Yuan

Updated April 24, 2024, at 10:55 a.m.

As Harvard Medical School research increasingly leans on funding from biopharmaceutical companies to supplement government funding, faculty are grappling with the benefits and harms of private interests in science.

Though some researchers remain optimistic about the financial support industry can provide — enabling greater access to resources and personnel — others have warned about the fleeting interests of industry.

Over the past few years, the Medical School has seen a surge in industry participation in research. In 2021, HMS Dean George Q. Daley ’82 noted during his State of the School address that HMS had been diversifying its funding sources. The next year, he said HMS had seen increased commercialization revenue and sponsored research funding.

In a March interview with The Crimson, Daley expressed support for expanding partnerships with biopharma companies as part of the school’s efforts to diversify its funding sources.

“We continue to want to connect also through partnerships with the translational arm of our ecosystem, which is biopharma,” Daley said. “And biopharma is increasingly interested in partnering with the likes of Harvard Medical School.”

Specifically, Daley said the National Institutes of Health budget has not increased proportionally with inflationary pressures, providing a motivation to expand funding into private industries.

“I certainly hope and we continue to advocate that federal funding needs to grow, but that Harvard Medical School has to look for other sources,” he said.

And while many HMS researchers have embraced the financial support that comes from increased biopharma participation in research funding, some have also adopted a more wary stance.

‘What it Takes’

For some at the Medical School, the additional boost provided by biopharma funding may determine whether the research happens.

Jeffrey R. Holt, an HMS professor of otolaryngology and neurology, spoke to the power industry partners can have in propeling research forward.

“There’s a lot of development work that has to happen,” Holt said. “To pay for clinical trials gets quite expensive, so having an industry partner who’s willing to foot the bill for that is really important.”

“Biopharma can bring in large amounts of funding, and that’s sometimes what it takes to get things into the clinic,” he said.

Holt also pointed to the importance of the extra funding in bringing in the manpower — and expertise — required for large-scale research projects.

“We have 12 people involved” in the lab, he said. “But by partnering with one of the biopharmas, they can bring teams of hundreds of folks who have a lot of experience with developing biological therapies.”

“They can bring teams that have very specific expertise to address the question of common interest,” Holt added.

HMS Executive Director of Therapeutics Translation Mark Namchuk said industry exposure is also crucial for current Medical School students.

“I think we need to come back to the fact that so many of the people that we’re training, whether they be graduate students or postdocs — their careers are going to be in the biopharmaceutical industry,” Namchuk said.

As a result, he said, “I would love for us to work in a more integrated fashion than has been traditional with biopharma.”

Currently, Namchuk said, the typical partnership between researchers and a biopharma company is marked by infrequent interaction.

“I would be more in favor of truly collaborative research work, where it’s both in the company and the university’s best interests,” he said. “Garnering the benefit of really getting the best of both worlds — extraordinary academic researchers working with people with extraordinary skill and drug discovery, for example.”

HMS Dean George Q. Daley '82 speaks at Harvard's 2023 Commencement ceremonies. Daley told The Crimson that though he hopes the federal government will increase funding for scientific research, HMS also needs to find other sources of financial backing.
HMS Dean George Q. Daley '82 speaks at Harvard's 2023 Commencement ceremonies. Daley told The Crimson that though he hopes the federal government will increase funding for scientific research, HMS also needs to find other sources of financial backing. By Marina Qu

Vivian Berlin, executive director of HMS at the Office of Technology Development, wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson that “strategic alliances with corporate partners provide support that accelerates research, initiates intellectual exchange, and brings real-world problems directly into the lab.”

“Strategic alliances are managed by OTD’s Corporate Alliances team who work closely with research teams, schools, and departments across the university over the course of several years to progress their innovations,” she added. “We engage with a wide range of corporate partners who are leaders in various industries to advance Harvard innovations to solutions that positively impact society.”

Beyond the researcher-side benefits, some HMS professors have also recognized the benefits working with industry can have for patients down the road.

Pamela A. Silver, an HMS biochemistry and systems biology professor, noted the importance of connecting research with more translational applications, which working with biopharma companies can facilitate.

“The excitement of working on something that has real world value. You know, that nothing beats working on something that ultimately ends up in a patient,” Silver said.

“When you see what can happen, and the benefit that can have for a patient and the patient’s family, honestly, there’s nothing like it,” Namchuk said. “I would love for more of our faculty members to get closer to that experience.”

‘Massive String Attached’

But several faculty also pointed to the competing interests between academic labs and biopharma companies that have made funding collaborations difficult.

“It’s one of those classic ‘you signed a deal with the devil’ mindsets, where you could say you’re getting a lot of money, but it comes with this massive string attached,” HMS Professor of Pediatrics Jonathan C. Kagan said.

“HMS has strict policies that guard against undue influence and ensure that research funded fully or in part by industry remains free of undue influence. Scientific independence and the freedom to publish all results is an explicit stipulation in our sponsored research agreements,” HMS spokesperson Ekaterina D. Pesheva wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson.

“Private funders have no role in the design, execution, analysis of the research conducted throughout HMS, nor in the selection and framing of research findings reported in a peer-reviewed publication emanating from this research,” she added.

Timothy T. Hla, an HMS professor of surgery, also pointed to the clash of communication philosophies between private companies and scientists.

“Basic sciences and academia are very open,” Hla said. “You want to share information, you want to publish, you want the science to move forward, because it takes a village for any discoveries.”

“In industry, they’re much more secretive with a lot of confidential material, confidential information,” he added. “They don’t want you to share a lot of what you’ve learned.”

In fact, Hla said, “You can’t necessarily reveal it to the outside world unless you clear it with them.”

According to Pesheva, HMS prioritizes faculty members’ rights to publish their results without industry influence. “HMS does not accept funding from industry with restrictions on publication,” she wrote.

Holt, the otolaryngology and neurology professor, noted that because these companies are usually profit-driven, researchers are also typically constrained to a narrower scope in their intellectual pursuits.

“A lot of what we do in academic research is driven by just curiosity and scientific interest,” Holt said.

“There are times where it’s come up, we’ve felt like there’s a certain path we’d like to follow to address some scientific questions,” he added, “but the biopharma company has thought, ‘Well, that is interesting, but it might not be profitable.’”

“And so they opted not to pursue things that we would have ordinarily pursued,” Holt said.

According to Kagan, partnering with biopharma companies can also prove risky for researchers, who may see the support stripped away without warning.

“Their interests can change on a dime,” Kagan said. “A company’s board of directors may ultimately say, ‘We’re investing too much money in our academic collaboration, so let’s cut this off tomorrow,’” Kagan said. “And that money immediately goes away.”

Pesheva wrote in a statement that HMS partnership contracts include provisions that require companies to provide “adequate notification” if they plan to terminate.

—Staff writer Veronica H. Paulus can be reached at veronica.paulus@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @VeronicaHPaulus.

—Staff writer Akshaya Ravi can be reached at akshaya.ravi@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @akshayaravi22.

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