U of M medical ethics professor slams school’s ‘medical research mess’ in New York Times

elliott portrait
Carl Elliott

University of Minnesota professor Carl Elliott has harsh words for the U’s embattled psychiatry department in an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times that begins:

If you want to see just how long an academic institution can tolerate a string of slow, festering research scandals, let me invite you to the University of Minnesota, where I teach medical ethics.

His list of major problems in the U’s psychiatry department includes:

  • A felony conviction and a Food and Drug Administration research disqualification for a psychiatrist guilty of fraud in a drug study.
  • The F.D.A. disqualification of another psychiatrist, for enrolling illiterate Hmong refugees in a drug study without their consent.
  • The suspended license of yet another psychiatrist, who was charged with “reckless, if not willful, disregard” for dozens of patients.
  • The 2004 suicide of Dan Markingson, a seriously mentally ill young man under an involuntary commitment order enrolled, over the objections of his mother, in an industry-funded antipsychotic study run by members of the department.

While university officials have suspended enrollment in psychiatric drug trials, Elliott says it isn’t enough, because officials haven’t admitted serious wrongdoing.

He says the ethical problem arises because “global, multibillion-dollar business enterprise, powered by the pharmaceutical and medical-device industries” have “plenty of money to grease the wheels of university research” and because “researchers themselves are often given powerful financial incentives to do unethical things: pressure vulnerable subjects to enroll in studies, fudge diagnoses to recruit otherwise ineligible subjects and keep subjects in studies even when they are doing poorly.”

Existing institutional review boards, working basically through an honor code, aren’t enough, he concludes.

An honor code is a fragile thing. All the parts have to be in place: pride in the integrity of an institution, vigilant self-policing, a collective sense of shame when the code is violated and a willingness to punish those who break it. At the University of Minnesota, we have very few of those things. And so without sustained, relentless pressure from the outside, I am afraid we are doomed to more of the same.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 05/26/2015 - 03:12 pm.

    Where was…

    Professor Elliot when all of this was going on?

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/26/2015 - 03:34 pm.

      He was howling at the moon,…

      …as no one was listening. At least no one in the University administration or the department involved were taking him seriously.

      Prof. Elliot would rank pretty high on the list of people who have created some movement by their agitation over time on the ethical issues here – to the point he and the others could no longer be ignored.

      I’m pretty sure the folks at the University who were a target of his criticisms regard him as a royal pain in the neck.

      • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 05/26/2015 - 04:27 pm.

        Just one example ….

        University of Minnesota research case is not a scandal
        link: http://bitly.com/1gs7W89

        (By Aaron Friedman, then dean of the U of M med school)

        “For years, Elliott has focused his energy on this single issue. Yet as Elliot clamors for more examination, he seems to feel no responsibility to accurately report what has already been done.”

        “Elliott has filed numerous requests for information over the years and has published countless accounts of the Markingson case. These requests have required the university to expend untold resources addressing his allegations over and over again as we attempt to respond to his selective and distorted narrative.”

        “We hope Star Tribune readers won’t allow Elliott’s campaign to cloud reality. Judge the university not on unfounded accusations, but on careful examination of the facts surrounding this case, and on the scale of the groundbreaking advancements taking place across our campuses every day.”

        “Dr. Aaron Friedman is vice president for health sciences and dean of the Medical School at the University of Minnesota.”


        Simply pathetic.

        William B. Gleason, PhD
        retired U of M medical school faculty and alum

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