Sheldon Silver, speaker of New York’s state assembly
Sheldon Silver, speaker of New York’s state assembly

Sheldon Silver seemed to have the Midas touch, enriching many within his orbit. Among those alleged to have benefited from an association with the speaker of the New York State Assembly was an eminent doctor at Columbia University; grants approved by Mr Silver funded the doctor’s mesothelioma research programme.

Prosecutors say the doctor, who has been widely named as Robert Taub, then directed his patients to Mr Silver, who in turn referred them to a law firm specialising in asbestos-related lawsuits (asbestos exposure is a leading cause of mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer).

In return for the stream of lucrative litigants, Mr Silver is said to have pocketed referral fees exceeding $3m — completing a golden triangle linking politicians, lawyers and doctors for mutual, undisclosed gain. That has tarnished in the cold light of the corruption charges Mr Silver now faces. Dr Taub has since stepped down from the research centre. Mr Silver is relinquishing his position as speaker, though not his assembly seat.

There is no suggestion that unwarranted mesothelioma diagnoses were made at Columbia, but the case highlights the shadowy territory some scientists willingly step into in order to fund their research and further their reputations. Dr Taub is said to have been seeking money to fund a research centre; Mr Silver enjoyed access to a health fund that could make it happen, plus a lawyer’s grasp of the fortune to be made from chasing compensation. It is not hard to imagine the unwritten bargain that might have followed. One troubling aspect of this story is that Dr Taub was apparently funded to research mesothelioma cases related to the 9/11 attacks. The fruits of that specific research, if it was done at all, are hard to come by.

Low-level corruption has become disturbingly common in science, especially health and medicine. Pharmaceutical companies pay university academics to conduct clinical studies, throwing in consultancy fees or stock options in return for keynote speeches at important conferences, or for appending their names to company written papers in prestigious journals. Some drug companies endow professorial chairs, gilding their own reputations by association. Universities, tethered by these investments, mostly do not rock the boat, acquiescing to a degree of external control over their research that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

It is not that the academics involved are deliberately fraudulent but they can, sometimes subconsciously, adjust study protocols to make the results — how shall we say? — more meaningful. Industry-funded drug studies are more likely to yield favourable results than studies bankrolled with public money. Negative studies are often buried.

This soft influence on science, and what it means for public health, should not be underestimated: a Harvard psychiatrist who advocated treating difficult toddlers with antipsychotic drugs was found to have become a millionaire on the back of payments from the makers of antipsychotics.

At the time, he happened to be writing national prescribing guidelines. This trend for hidden financial ties — which bloomed in the past decade as governments cut funding and encouraged academics to flirt with commerce — grew so pervasive that journals began to insist that scientists disclose potential conflicts of interest, including grants, consultancies, speaking fees and shareholdings. The fine AllTrials campaign to have every single clinical trial registered and the results disclosed is another right hook against this culture of secrecy. Left unchecked, secrecy distorts science.

Dr Taub’s situation reminds me of the case of Andrew Wakefield, the discredited UK doctor who first suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella. It so happened that this charismatic, campaigning medic was named on a patent application for a rival vaccine. The British Medical Journal later reported he was secretly earning referral fees for directing patients towards a class-action lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers.

After these allegations surfaced through the work of investigative reporters, the research paper was re­tracted and Dr Wakefield was struck off. He left for the US, to be embraced by an anti-vaccination lobby that still mistakenly casts doubt on the safety of MMR. That lobby is eating into public confidence about childhood vaccination, undermining one of the most successful public health measures of recent times.

The measles outbreak that started in Disneyland in California, and that has now spread to at least seven other US states plus Mexico, can be counted as part of Dr Wakefield’s damaging legacy. That is the thing about science: secrets can be almost as dangerous as lies.

The writer is a science commentator and regular FT contributor

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