The Role of Bioethics in the Pharmaceutical Industry: Informal Review of Five-Year Trends and One Company’s Systematic Approach


Description of the Research
The goal of this project was to assess the role of bioethics in the pharmaceutical industry by examining trends from a review of industry practices, as well as one company’s systematic approach. Of specific interest was what companies stated publicly about bioethics. 

An informal review of over 20 major pharmaceutical companies was conducted recurrently from 2008 to 2014. The cohort changed over time as a result of mergers/acquisitions. Data from corporate websites were supplemented by other public search engine data. Bioethics information collected included: company website content, committees, full-time effort, education, projects, and publications. 

Data revealed a 67% increase in the use of the word ‘bioethics’ on company websites from 2008 to 2014. In 2008, few companies had webpages dedicated specifically to bioethics or research ethics; in 2014, there were seven. The first mention of a company bioethics committee occurred in the mid-1990’s. From 2008 to 2014, there was approximately a 20% increase in the number of company bioethics committees, with varied purposes and structures. In 2008, two companies had full-time effort (the first established in 2001, the second in 2008). In 2014, a third company established full-time effort. In 2014, five companies specifically mentioned internal bioethics education but only one delineated what was offered. Externally-facing projects have ranged from monetary donations to collaborative projects with academia and private institutions. One company’s systematic approach to bioethics will be shared—outlining the purpose and composition of its bioethics program, established in 2008. Core activities include position development, consultation service, education and training, collaborative projects (both internal and external), and scholarship. 

The current informal review provides a perspective on the developing role of bioethics in the industry. Since 2008, there is increasing pharmaceutical company activity and investment in this discipline, but the range of self-described activity is still unchanged—ranging from no mention of bioethics to full-time effort. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude the role of bioethics in the pharmaceutical industry is yet undefined. However, the systematic approach and experience of one company indicate ‘pharmaceutical bioethics’ should be considered complementary to, but separate from, legal compliance. Limitations of the current analysis include the informal methodology used (i.e., website searches) and the incomplete nature of publicly available information on private companies. Future studies should continue to track the development of bioethics in the pharmaceutical industry; more rigorous empirical investigations may be possible as companies implement transparency initiatives.