Senior academics are outraged that the University of Queensland has asked an academic to apologise to a drug company for his public comments on the cervical cancer vaccine developed jointly by the university and the company.

Academics at the university and elsewhere say the request is a threat to academic freedom and warn that it raises worrying concerns about universities’ independence and ability to negotiate conflicts of interest.

The request came after the company, CSL, wrote to the university’s vice chancellor complaining about these comments by Andrew Gunn, a senior lecturer in general practice.

The program dealt with the general issue of pharmaceutical marketing and briefly mentioned Gardasil, whose development has reaped millions of dollars for the university as well as public and political kudos.

CSL’s director of public affairs, Rachel David, wrote: “I feel Dr Gunn’s comments are inappropriate and inconsistent with the long-standing relationship CSL has with the University of Queensland and given the involvement of the university in the development of Gardasil.” 

On 14 March the university’s secretary and registrar, Douglas Porter, wrote to Gunn, asking him to provide a written apology to CSL stating that the “comments were made by you in your personal capacity and were not endorsed or authorised by the university.” Porter also asked to be sent a copy of Gunn’s letter to CSL.

Gunn is disappointed by the university’s response and believes that the company’s complaint seemed to be aimed at stopping him from speaking out again. “Even if you’re fairly resistant to pressure, it’s got to make you think twice about saying potentially critical things about their products,” he said.

As I write in the British Medical Journal tomorrow, a host of academics have criticised the University’s handling of the complaint, with some also describing CSL’s response as “heavy handed”.

The University of Queensland’s vice chancellor declined to comment and referred me to Mr Porter, who said that Dr Gunn “had no authority to speak on behalf of the university” and should not have mentioned his university position. “You’re just beating this up,” he told me. “It’s an absolute storm in a teacup.”

Meanwhile, CSL’s Rachel David says that neither she nor anyone else at CSL has the “power or the inclination to ‘gag academic freedom’ or any form of freedom of speech”.

Read the letters behind the University of Queensland furore here: CSL’s letter of complaint and UQ’s letter to Dr Gunn – page 1/page 2.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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