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Bridges, not barriers

Industry talent should be welcomed into academia, not seen as a corrupting influence.

The recent announcement that William Chin, a top executive at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, is to become executive dean for research at Harvard Medical School, has drawn criticism. Chin, a Harvard-trained physician and researcher, spent 25 years at the Boston medical school and its affiliated hospitals before moving to Eli Lilly 11 years ago. There, he has risen to become head of drug discovery and clinical research. By moving back, the critics charge, he has passed through a 'revolving door' between academia and industry that taints the academic enterprise. As proof, they point to some academic researchers' failure to disclose their industry income.

Such lapses have damaged the image of the biomedical enterprise, and taxpayers' trust in it. They justify close scrutiny of links between academia and industry. But the critics are misguided. They have conflated the very existence of industry–academia collaborations with failure to disclose those links.

Transparency is vital, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is preparing, appropriately, to tighten disclosure regulations for its extramural investigators collaborating with industry. But the view that any and all cooperation between industry and academics is inherently suspect has created a poisonous atmosphere that has driven some young investigators to take up other careers. So charged have things become that Robert Califf, vice-chancellor for clinical research at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, last week told a conference at NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, about a recent meeting where the leaders of major academic medical centres were afraid to sit in the same room with industry leaders — with the goal of enhancing understanding and cooperation — for fear of an outcry either in Congress or the media.

Yet such meetings, and appointments such as Chin's, are not only appropriate, but essential for strengthening university research and for bridging the gap between lab and clinic — a gap that has bred a justifiable public impatience for cures at the advent of the 'century of biology'.

Chin has both a physician's appreciation of illness and an enviable scientific pedigree; the chairs of the medical school's basic-science departments endorsed his hiring unanimously. He has always sought to connect laboratory discoveries to human disease. Just as importantly, he has run a huge drug-discovery enterprise, giving him the kind of management experience and insights into discovery and translation that can be got only in industry. This will particularly inform his efforts to guide the medical school's scientific interactions with industry, in the drive to meet critical medical needs.

Reject such people and the academy cuts off its nose to spite its face. Instead, it should take advantage of them, as the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), did last year in naming Susan Desmond-Hellmann, previously president of product development at biotech company Genentech, as its chancellor. Last week, six months after she took the helm, UCSF announced a collaboration with Genentech aimed at generating small-molecule drug candidates, a step that has proven a major obstacle in drug discovery.

The notion, pushed implicitly by critics, that academia can and should remain a pristine bubble, untainted and uninformed by those with industry experience, reflects a failure to understand that industry–academia cooperation is essential if we are to speed the medical progress that everyone seeks.

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Bridges, not barriers. Nature 463, 999–1000 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/463999b

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