Research Ethics Roundup: surprise billing in clinical trials, Swiss referendum on animal testing, and more

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This month’s Research Ethics Roundup covers two major movements in the Biden administration’s science personnel, a new and potentially problematic development in surprise billing for clinical trial information gathering, and the Swiss referendum on animal testing.

Biden’s top science adviser, Eric Lander, resigns amid reports of bullying
Politico | Alex Thompson

When President Biden chose Eric Lander to be the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in January of 2021, reactions were ambivalent. Many touted Lander’s impeccable record on the cutting edge of science, such as his involvement with the Human Genome Research Project, and his stewardship of a large, powerful institution like the Broad Institute. However, some worried that his reputation for stridency over collegiality wouldn’t suit the Biden administration’s goals.

Earlier this month, Lander resigned from the White House following an investigation that revealed a toxic work culture that grew under his leadership. The White House internal report that led to his resignation, which Politico made public, revealed credible evidence of bullying his colleagues, particularly women, and a reliable history of disrespectful interactions.

When surprise bills meet clinical studies
Axios | Bob Herman

Axios reports a story where John Mathna, a Tennessee resident, contacted a Mayo Clinic doctor about a study on electrical stimulation treatment for a spinal cord injury. The call was around half an hour, and Mathna opted not to participate. Despite the call being purely informational, and regarding a trial rather than treatment, the Mayo Clinic billed Mathna for $476; following that bill, Mathna’s insurer, Cigna, said they wouldn’t pay for the “out-of-network consult.” Bioethicists Carol Levine and Arthur Caplan, writing for The Hastings Center, ask of the event: “Has the effort to reduce disincentives to enroll in trials succumbed to bottom-line considerations?”

Swiss reject ban on animal testing in referendum
Reuters | John Revill

In a previous edition of Research Ethics Roundup, we reported on a Swiss referendum that would ban not only the conduct of animal research within the nation’s borders, but also the use or sale of pharmaceutical products that were developed using animal research. Some commentators described the referendum as a potential bellwether on the future of animal research. The referendum failed by a wide margin, achieving only 21% support. A pharmaceutical industry representative said the vote “shows that the Swiss population recognize the central role of research for people’s health and for prosperity in Switzerland.”

Senate Confirms Califf as F.D.A. Chief in Tight Vote
The New York Times | Christina Jewett and Emily Cochrane

Robert Califf has been confirmed for the position of FDA commissioner by a narrow margin, reflecting the polarized nature of his confirmation process. Califf was the subject of bipartisan scrutiny for his industry ties, abortion positions, and stance on accelerated approval, among other issues. Ultimately, Senate Democrats were able to secure enough votes to successfully confirm the longtime clinical trials expert. This will be Califf’s second stint at the head of the FDA, following a brief time in the office at the end of the Obama presidency.