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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 board met three times a year for two-day meetings, and according to Brian, the membership was “all male, Caucasian, middle aged and highly distinguished.”  The members were Ronald Dworkin, John Harris, Lawrence Gostin, David Weatherall, John Robertson, Hamilton Moses, Philip Reilly, Ian Kennedy, Gordon Dunstan, and Peter Lachmann.  The primary internal figure at SKB involved with the board was George Poste, Vice-President of Research.

Q: From your description, it sounds as if the SKB board had no real mandate, no influence on policy, and no real reason for existence other than the intellectual enrichment of the members and the corporate executive who organized it. I was struck by your statement that the members of the committee kept emphasizing that they didn’t influence corporate decision-making and that they didn’t have access to any company secrets.  So what do you think its purpose was? 

A: The Vice-President of Research believes strongly that you cannot have robust ethical decision making about normative dimensions of science and technology without including industry in those conversations. However, he didn’t bring industry into any conversation.  He instead brought some very accomplished people in to the company to debate a variety of issues—without giving many details about SKB’s own work.

These people got to give their own perspectives, but they also listened to SKB’s position about things like patents and pharmaceuticals.  And then they took that information out into the world, incorporating it into their lectures and articles, etc.  The members of the board refused to let the company write anything about them, and I doubt very many people within the company knew the board existed.

I think it was a very interesting activity for the VP, and it helped promote his own intellectual agenda.  But I really don’t think he was promoting anything about industry or SKB in particular, which is why the purpose of the board is murky. It was also the first private-sector bioethics board, so according to them, they were exploring what such a board might do within the corporate setting.

Q: It sounds like a personal liberal-arts seminar, with upscale hotels and business-class tickets for the attendees.

A: Yes, that’s what the external members thought, I think. Everyone spoke very enthusiastically about it, and said it was one of the more intellectually engaging activities they’d done as academics.

 Q: Doesn’t the secrecy suggest they suspected there might be something illegitimate about the whole thing?

A: The secrecy might have just been the responsible thing to do; the external members signed confidentiality agreements when they joined. And I think it was also a concern for the reputations of other members. They know that people think badly of industry, and they did not want to be labeled as having played a role in helping the pharmaceutical industry “get away” with anything.

From their perspective, they had little to no impact on company policy, and they got flown around the world to chat, so from an outside perspective, it was not something to celebrate.  As I said, they all loved the experience, and spoke effusively about the quality of the intellectual exchange.  There is nothing wrong with what they did, but the impact or effectiveness (however we may measure those) was negligible.

Q: Did you get the sense that any of the members of that SmithKline committee have kept themselves informed about the ethical wrongdoing that the company was involved in when they were being convened to talk about ethics? I am thinking about the Paxil scandal, not Avandia, which came later. 

A: No, I did not get the sense that they knew or cared very much about any scandal—while they were meeting or in the years after.  There are some exceptions, of course. I had a hard time contacting members of the SKB board because of how prominent they were. It took me quite a while to work out who they were. Each member dodged the question when I asked who they worked with.  No one at SKB would help me, except for the VP, who talked to me twice.  Those who were willing to name names had poor memories.

Coming next: the Eli Lilly bioethics board

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