Pharma is just not wired to act in the public interest when the chips are down

It has been an interesting 24 hours for some of our goliaths of research funding.

Starting with the positive, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) rolled out its new research strategy this morning: ‘Beating Cancer Sooner.’ Its bold new vision is to see 75% of people surviving the disease in the next twenty years. That’s compared to the 50% who survive today.

And it’s aiming to inject a good deal of new cash raised from the public to achieve its ambitions. Over the next five years it wants to double the amount it raises from supporters. Without checking the figures, I would have thought that this would put it well on course to being the first public fundraising charity investing around £1 billion on behalf of its beneficiaries.

I like the commitment in the strategy to use this money to support young scientists and the focus on rarer cancers and young people with cancer.

There is only one sentence in the strategy directly about public involvement as far as I can see. In this it talks about wishing to increase the opportunities for patients and carers to be involved in research – the charity has long been criticised that it does not do enough on this front.  But it has recently advertised for its first ever ‘Director for Public Engagement’ and has been consulting others on where it can make the most difference in this field.

So watch this space would be my counsel. The thing to remember about organisations as big as CRUK, is that they can take a long time to turn round. But when they do, their might can be considerable in changing the wider culture and environment. So who know, in five years time we might all find ourselves running to keep up with them.

Contrast Cancer Research UK’s move with that of the US pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, which has just announced a takeover bid for Astra Zeneca headquartered in the UK. The Guardian’s Ian Sample has written an excellent piece today about what it could mean for UK research.

The more you look at it the more it seems like the defensive act of an industry that has run out of ideas about how to face the future. Pfizer’s predatory antics only make that future dimmer in my opinion. Unless you are a shareholder.

My brief experience of mergers and acquisitions suggests that the subsequent story is rarely a happy one for the company taken over and its people. In fact, I would be interested to see the evidence supporting the notion that innovation burns brighter in the amalgamated concern. Or maybe it does but, like magnesium set alight in the school chemistry lab, briefly and destructively.

There is also a rather curious public involvement angle to all this in that Pfizer and Astra Zeneca are strange bedfellows when it comes to culture. I have been impressed by Astra Zeneca’s open embrace of public involvement and engagement in recent years. Pfizer’s is somewhat behind the curve to put it mildly. It would be a loss to us all if Astra Zeneca’s leadership in forging a better relationship between patients and industry is swallowed away. We shall have to wait and see.

I am afraid there is no getting away from the fact that what differentiates the pharmaceutical industry from public and charity funders of research is that pharma are under no real obligation to act in the public interest.

So we should not be surprised when they act against it.

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