California campuses resist industry restrictions

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Universities cling to links with drug firms.

Campuses at the University of California are fighting a move to restrict their interactions with industry representatives.

“Whether they're called unrestricted or not, a lot of these grants do have strings attached.”

Last year, officials at the University of California proposed a set of draft guidelines to govern how industry representatives can influence students and employees of the university's health sciences facilities and campuses, including medical and pharmacy schools. The measures would ban free gifts and samples for clinicians, catered lunches for medical students and so-called unrestricted research grants from industry.

But on 12 July, the campuses roundly rejected the proposed guidelines, calling them “unacceptably vague, overbroad, and impinging on academic freedom”. Speaking on behalf of the campuses, the system-wide academic council recommended that the university's president ditch the guidelines altogether.

“The Academic Council... respectfully requests that the [University of California Office of the President's] Office of Clinical Services withdraw this proposal at this time,” wrote academic council chair John Oakley, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, in a letter to the University of California president's office.

The president's office will review the recommendations and decide how to proceed, said office spokesperson Jennifer Ward.

The move bucks a recent trend of medical schools clamping down on the close relationships that industry cultivates with faculty and students. Medical schools across the nation, from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, have passed rules restricting gifts, free lunches and money that often flows freely from pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers and other industry sources to doctors, researchers and students. The bans have been sparked in part by an article published in January last year (T. A. Brennan et al. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 295, 429–433; 2006). In the article, doctors and researchers called on academic medical centres to tighten their policies to eliminate conflicts of interest between their employees and faculties and industry.

But under president Robert Dynes, the University of California has gone in the opposite direction, cultivating close relationships with industry that have caused controversy.

For instance, some members of the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley have protested against a $500 million deal their campus signed with the energy company BP in February (see Nature 445, 688–689; doi:10.1038/445688b 2007). And for several years the university has been embroiled in a debate about whether it should accept research funding from tobacco companies (see Nature 446, 242; 2007).

This worries academics such as Lisa Bero, a professor of clinical pharmacy and health policy at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies the way such 'unrestricted' funding can influence both research and clinical practice (Br. Med. J. 326, 1167–1170; 2003). Bero calls the academic council's attempt to derail the university's vendor policy “disappointing”. She notes that no University of California school has implemented a comprehensive ban on gifts and other industry influence on campus, and disputes the academic freedom argument cited in opposition to the proposed system-wide policy.

“The evidence we have shows that whether they're called unrestricted or not, a lot of these grants do have strings attached,” Bero says.

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UC Academic Council review of proposed guidelines

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