News of the WeekBiomedical Research

Bristol-Myers Ends No-Strings Grants

Science  02 Jun 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5778, pp. 1289
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5778.1289a

Scientists are mourning the cancellation of a long-running research grants program funded by a major drug company. The Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) Freedom to Discover program, begun in 1977, only supports about 50 biomedical scientists at a time. But the grants, about $6 million a year recently, come with no strings attached. That feature, which allows for high-risk research, is particularly welcome at a time when U.S. funding for biomedical research is tightening. Some scientists are troubled that the company is pulling the plug in part because of the growing global debate over the ethics of corporate payments to academic physicians. “I think they've gone overboard and are tanking a wonderful program,” says grantee Carl June, a cancer researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

BMS says that Freedom to Discover is the largest corporate-funded, unrestricted research grants program in the world. Scientists can't just bid for the grants, however. Instead, BMS scientists identify potential recipients doing work of interest to the company in six biomedical fields and invite them to compete. The winners, chosen largely based on their track records, receive $100,000 a year for 5 years. The grantees also meet annually to choose a distinguished scientist to receive a $50,000 lifetime achievement award considered to be among the most prestigious in their fields.

The resulting flexibility to follow one's hunches is extremely rare, says Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist Michela Gallagher. She says her search for neurobiological markers that explain why some rats remain mentally sharp into old age might be seen as a “fishing expedition” by a U.S. National Institutes of Health study section. Others have used the company's money to support postdocs until they get their first grant or to collect chimp fecal samples in Africa for an HIV study. BMS makes no claim to any of the findings. “There's lots of payola within the pharmaceutical industry, but this is one of the few programs that is really squeaky clean,” says immunologist W. Allan Walker of Harvard Medical School in Boston, who is also a recipient.

Fishing license.

Michela Gallagher says a BMS grant lets her explore promising ideas.

CREDIT: JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY

Earlier this year, the company began telling grantees, many of whom are not physicians, that it was changing some rules to avoid the perception of any conflict of interest. Spouses could no longer attend the awards selection meeting for free, for example, and grantees were asked to sign an agreement saying they were consultants to BMS.

BMS spokesperson Rebecca Taylor says the program was killed in order to expand efforts such as a $150 million, multi-year program that funds pediatric AIDS clinics in Africa. But “an increase in compliance regulations affecting the global pharmaceutical industry” is a contributing factor, she adds. Some recipients say they were told that BMS lawyers felt the company could run afoul of new, restrictive regulations in Europe on corporate gifts to physicians.

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