Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tufts Blows It

I like Tufts. I'm a voluntary faculty member there, and recently the university promoted me to associate clinical professor of psychiatry (from "assistant") even though I'm a loose cannon in the world of psychiatry.

But Tufts officials just made a silly mistake when they rescinded an invitation to Paul Thacker, one of Senator Charles Grassley's aides, to speak at a conference on conflicts of interest in medicine and research. See full coverage of this issue in today's Boston Globe.

According to Christine Fennelly, a Tufts spokesperson, the decision to disinvite Thacker was made because Senator Grassley has sent a letter requesting financial disclosures to Dr. Helen Boucher, an infectious disease specialist at Tufts. The Globe article quotes Fennelly thusly:

"Indeed . . . the administration felt it prudent to not engage someone from the Senator's office while we respond to the Senator's inquiry."

I don't know who made this decision, but it is a poor one for many reasons. It sets a tone of antagonism rather than cooperation, of opacity rather than transparency. It also deprives the Tufts community of Thacker's opinions. I've had several conversations with him and have found him to be a fascinating person, extremely knowledgable about the effects of conflicts of interest in medicine and in many other fields, and someone with a strong moral compass. Before working for Grassley, he was an eminent and award-winning investigative journalist--you can read about some of his accomplishments in this Wikipedia entry. Some of you may recall this influential article in Salon.com entitled "A Climate-Controlled White House," in which it was revealed that the Bush administration pressured top federal scientists to toe the party line on global warming (please--let's just call it "climate change," shall we?) That was Paul Thacker's work.

Thus, in this decision, Tufts is doing everything a top academic center should never do. It is limiting academic freedom, it is ignoring a contrarian point of view, it is rejecting a distinguished thinker, and it is alienating a vocal portion of its own academic community.

Hopefully, the officials will change their minds. I'm pretty sure Thacker won't be offended if he is re-invited, even under conditions of public relations duress.

5 comments:

Gianna said...

well, good for speaking out again...loose cannon that you are and all...

Kerri Wachter said...

Just found your blog and it's very refreshing. If more psychiatrists thought like you, I'd never have to hear that old disclosure gem about being multiply conflicted at another medical meeting.

Anonymous said...

when and where will this conference be held?

Anonymous said...

Dr. Carlat, I appreciate your blog and often agree with your assessments. In this case, however, I think you missed the ball.

Reverse the situation.

Senator Grassley sends an inquiry about a professor from Tufts. Tufts is in the process of responding.

At the same time, a symposium on conflicts of interest in medicine is being planned.

If Tufts had invited Paul Thacker to speak, don't you think it would have had the appearance of a conflict of interest? The headline might have read "Tufts Co-Opts Investigation of Faculty Member" and the implication would have been that they were trying to influence the outcome of the inquiry by buddying up to Paul Thacker and Senator Grassley.

I like your work but don't think you thought this one through.

Daniel Carlat, M.D. said...

Anon,

Thanks for your thoughts--but I don't understand your point. You say "reverse the situation" but then describe the exact situation as it stands. Grassley did make an inquiry, and Tufts did hold a COI conference, but then it forbade Thacker from participating. If it had allowed his participation, perhaps the university would have opened itself to the criticism you envision. But I doubt that criticism would have happened, because nobody would have seen this as an effort to surreptitiously influence Grassley's investigation. Everything would have been out in the open and I can assure you that Thacker would have been quite outspoken in all his views if he had been re-invited to the conference. What am I missing here?