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Independence test

Pharma funnels millions into university sponsorship

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The independence of Swiss universities from the corporate world has again been called into question as details of pharmaceutical sponsorship deals were broadcast by Swiss public television, SRF. The programme found evidence that one firm may have manipulated academic research data.

SRF research shows financial links between pharma giants - such as Roche, Novartis, Merck-Serono and even the industry lobby group interpharma – and several leading universities. Pharma funding paid for professorial seats and/or research at the universities of Bern, Basel, Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL).

The grants ranged from CHF450,000 ($467,000) annually to a CHF12.5 million contract that runs for 25 years. This last sum was paid by Merck-Serono for chairs in neuroscience, drug delivery and oncology at EPFL.

The most damning revelation is that Merck-Serono demanded to see research every three months and reserved the right to make “acceptable alterations” to results. EPFL’s head of sponsorship, Jérôme Grosse, told SRF that “researchers are independent in their everyday work”. But he admitted that the university would perhaps not sign such a deal in future.

Merck-Serono said alterations to research only took place within the work of the chairs it sponsors. "We respect, preserve and explicitly underline the independence of research and teaching,” said company spokesman Gangolf Schrimpf.

Interviewed by the SRF Rundschau programme, Bern lawyer Markus Müller told SRF called the ethics of such deals into questions. “Such deals with private pharmaceutical companies hugely affect the independence of Swiss universities,” he said.

Repeat controversy

This is not the first time that corporate financial links to universities has been questioned in Switzerland.

In 2012, the University of Zurich came under the spotlight by signing a CHF100 million deal with UBS bank to cover five chairs and establish a “UBS International Centre of Economics in Society”. The contract stated that UBS personnel would be given preferential entrance to the centre and that university professors were expected to attend certain of the bank’s events.

As a result of the furore, the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne were asked by the Swiss data commissioner to publish all their commercial contracts.

Most Swiss universities receive some private financing and argue it is key to maintaining their international competitiveness. SRF research of leading Swiss universities showed that the proportion of private financing to overall budget varied wildly from 8.8% to 44.7%.



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