All posts by Carl Elliott


Watchdogs or Showdogs? The Final Installment

Jenny Dyck Brian

Is it a conflict of interest for a bioethicist to work as a paid consultant for the pharmaceutical industry?

In recent weeks I have posted my conversation with Jenny Dyck Brian of Arizona State University, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on corporate bioethics boards.  (See parts one, two and three.)  Today we reach the final installment.

Q: A lot of people outside bioethics seem shocked when I tell them about academic bioethicists working for pharma.  But within the field,…


Watchdogs or Show Dogs 3: Eli Lilly

Jenny Dyck Brian

Do bioethicists make pharmaceutical companies more ethical?

This is a central question motivating my interview with Jenny Dyck Brian, an Arizona State University professor who wrote her doctoral dissertation on corporate bioethics boards. (See parts one and two of the interview.) Today we turn to Eli Lilly, a company that has had its share of ethical scandal: the recruitment of homeless alcoholics for drug-safety trials, the suicide of a healthy volunteer in a Cymbalta study, th…


Watchdogs or Show Dogs 2: SmithKline Beecham

Jenny Dyck Brian

In the first part of my interview with Jenny Dyck Brian of Arizona State University about pharma’s bioethicists, we talked about whether or not ethicists could be used as public relations tools.  Today we turn to a specific case.  In the mid-1990s, SmithKline Beecham—a company that later became part of GlaxoSmithKline—set up its Ethics and Public Policy Board to look especially at issues in genomic science, an area in which the company was eager to become a leader.  The…


Watchdogs or Show Dogs?

Jenny Dyck Brian

Jenny Dyck Brian

It is no secret that many academic physicians work for the pharmaceutical industry as speakers and consultants. Less widely known is that the pharmaceutical industry also employs academic bioethicists.

Beginning in the 1990s, a number of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies began to set up bioethics advisory boards, ostensibly to obtain guidance about controversial ethical issues. Over the years, the ties between industry and bioethics have gradually grown closer, with com…


When Medical Muckraking Fails

“The Man With the Muck Rake,” courtesy of National Archives UK

Everyone knows how muckraking is supposed to work.  An investigative reporter uncovers hidden wrongdoing; the public is outraged; and the authorities move quickly on behalf of justice and righteousness.  There can be failure at any of these points, of course.  Sometimes there is no outrage.  The timing of the story may be poor, or the media outlet might be too small to get any real attention.  If the target of the investigation …


Another Day in Paradise

Geoffrey Wilkinson as Ben Gunn, courtesy of

I’m sitting in a pink plastic yard chair, feet up, glass in hand, looking out over the palm trees and the mangroves.  Across the bay are the mountains of Viti Levu. I have never really been an enthusiast of tropical paradises, yet this is the third time I have found myself in the Fiji islands on my birthday. I suppose there are worse ways of dispelling the malaise. No phone, no Internet, just a bottle of Bounty Rum and a stack of hard-…


‘Unfortunate Experiments’ in New Zealand and Minnesota


Near Dunedin, New Zealand

Another spectacular winter morning in Dunedin, New Zealand.  Clear blue sky, frost on the ground, lush green hills plunging into the South Pacific. It is hard to complain about the setting, still less about the kindness and decency of the inhabitants.  It has been nearly 22 years since my wife and I first landed in Dunedin, in August of 1990, when I began a postdoctoral fellowship at the newly established Bioethics Centre at the University of Otago.  I still wonder…


Billing the Victims of Unethical Medical Research

Imagine for a moment that you are seriously injured in a medical research study and require expensive medical care.   Imagine further that the study in which you are injured is scientifically worthless, deceptive and exploitative – sort of like the Tuskegee syphilis study, for example.  Who ought to be responsible for paying for your medical care?

In the United States, the answer is: You are.  There is no legal obligation for a research sponsor to pay for your medical care, even if the sponsor …


Who’s Afraid of Sunshine Laws?

NosferatuFor years, those of us who worry about the way pharmaceutical industry money perverts medical practice have been told there is a simple solution to our concerns: disclosure.  “Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” the advocates say in unison, like elementary school students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.  The Physician Payment Sunshine Act, the Pro Publica “Dollars for Docs” database, stricter disclosure rules for medical journals and continuing medical education events: Everyone bel…


Lawn Boy: the College Years

Not the Harvard Commencement Ceremony

Not the Harvard Commencement Ceremony

We’re on the road, my son Crawford and I.  It’s time to visit colleges, and our schedule is brutal.  Hot car, blinding sun, 12 colleges in 10 days, Ann Arbor to Sewanee. Onward we drive, Zevon on the stereo, afternoon into night, our mission fueled by gas-station coffee and Doritos. When we stop, it is for college admissions tours, barbecue, and, on one occasion, a broken alternator belt. I don’t even like to think about how far we have traveled.

The trip ha…


FDA Inspectors Pound Celltex

In February, my colleague at the University of Minnesota, Leigh Turner, sent a letter to the FDA asking for an investigation of Celltex, the controversial adult-stem-cell company in Texas.  In response, attorneys for Celltex fired off a letter to the president of the university claiming that the letter had created “real and permanent harm to Celltex’s reputation.”  It asked what steps the University of Minnesota was taking to “disclaim sponsorship of the Turner letter” and remove it f…


On Predatory Publishers: a Q&A With Jeffrey Beall

Jeffrey Beall

If your incoming flow of email spam looks anything like mine, it probably features a regular invitation to submit an article to a journal you have never heard of, or to be a part of its editorial board, or maybe even to edit the journal.  The names of the publishers vary, but the invitations usually look something like this one, which arrived last week.

Deae Carl Elliott,
I am very pleasure that you can read this letter. Given the achievement you made in your research field, w…


Pharmed Out: an Interview With Adriane Fugh-Berman (Part 2)

Adriane Fugh-Berman

Last week I posted the first half of my interview with Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, the director of the Pharmed Out project at Georgetown University Medical Center, which will be holding its 3rd annual conference on June 14-15.  At the end of Part 1, we were discussing the need for informed consent in medical school when attending physicians remove the souls of medical students.  We’ll pick up the conversation from there.

Can you think of any particularly bad moments that seem em…


Pharmed Out: an Interview With Adriane Fugh-Berman

In June, I will be returning to Washington for the annual Pharmed Out conference, a project located at Georgetown University Medical Center.  It is one of my favorite events of the year, in part because of the wide array of academics, journalists, and activists who attend, but mainly because of its extraordinarily committed, outspoken director, Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, and her merry band of student volunteers.  Adriane agreed to an interview by email.  Part 1 appears below.  I will post Part …


How to Write About Wittgenstein

From Wikipedia, a 1947 photograph of Wittgenstein by Ben Richards

“I first saw Wittgenstein in the Michaelmas term of 1938, my first term at Cambridge.  At a meeting of the Moral Science Club, after the paper for the evening was read and the discussion started, someone began to stammer a remark.  He had extreme difficulty in expressing himself and his words were unintelligible to me.  I whispered to my neighbor: ‘Who is that?’: he replied, ‘Wittgenstein.’”

So begins Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir


Making a Name for Yourself in the Ethics Business

Let’s start with a quiz.  Can you tell which of these awards is real?

A) The Exxon Valdez Prize in Environmental Ethics

B) The Goldman Sachs Endowment in Business Ethics

C) The Richard Milhous Nixon Award for Ethics in Government

D) The Pfizer Fellowship in Bioethics

If you guessed D), you win.  Yes, it is true that Pfizer has a rap sheet filled with felonies; yes, the company exploited Nigerian children in one of the deadliest research scandals in recent memory;  and yes, in 2009 it paid out t…


Take a Ride on the Mood Elevator

These are not happy times for the embattled drug maker AstraZeneca.  The patent for Seroquel has expired; the company’s profits have plummeted; and its CEO, David Brennan, has just been escorted to the exit door.  It seems like a good time to look back at sunnier days, when Seroquel, the ex-blockbuster antipsychotic, was a hot new drug for bipolar disorder.

As it happens, I recently got an email from “David Bronstein,” the medical ghostwriter who appears in my book, White Coat, Black Hat.  Bro…


Studying Bioethics at Scandal-Plagued Universities

Why should students study bioethics at a university plagued with bioethical scandals? That’s the uncomfortable question here in Minnesota, where our bioethics graduate program is housed in an academic health center seemingly intent on making its way into the Guinness Book of World Records for Disgraceful Behavior. Research death, corruption, scientific fraud, invasion of privacy, nepotism, double-dipping, employment discrimination, manipulation of research data,  improper industry influence,  a…


When University Attorneys Play Hardball

Everyone knows that some attorneys have a reputation for playing hardball.  In fact, many of us even seek out attorneys who play hardball.   But sometimes “playing hardball” becomes something entirely more disturbing, like a deranged major league pitcher hurling a 90 mile-an-hour fastball at the head of a Little Leaguer.   What would you do if you discovered this was the behavior of attorneys representing your university?

This was the question I asked myself in 2008, when my employer, the Univer…


Spiro Agnew Speaks to a New Generation of Young Patriots

Like many people, I often like to relax after work with a cool drink and a vice-presidential speech on the stereo.  And these days, the album getting the heaviest rotation on my playlist is Spiro T. Agnew Speaks Out.  Call me nostalgic; call me a prisoner of the 1970s; but for my money, a better compilation of vice-presidential speeches has never been made.

I discovered the Agnew album at Hymie’s Vintage Records last week.  It was in a bin marked “Difficult Listening,” along with other n…