Hardly isolated from commercial ties, researchers in the ivory towers—and labs—of U.S. universities receive an average of $33,417 of funding a year from medical device, pharmaceutical and other medical industry companies, according to a study published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study analyzed data from a 2006-2007 survey of 1,663 academic researchers, and also found that those faculty who led clinical trials of medicines or devices (principal investigators) did even better—receiving upward of $110,000 a year from industry sources—more than a quarter of their average research funding.

"Highly educated people may be more likely to feel they aren't susceptible to influence," Eric Campbell, a study author and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told Bloomberg News, "but there's a huge literature to suggest it happens."

And the study found accordingly: among researchers with ties to the industry—whether they were financial or informational—"a substantially greater proportion documented positive outcomes" in their studies, write the authors, Campbell and Darren Zinner of the Schneider Institutes for Health Policy and Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. It's tricky to know what to make of this correlation as respondents also reported that industry help "contributed to their most important scientific work," they note.

"There are some well-documented negative effects of industry funding, but a large portion of these people have reported that they think it helped lead to important scientific discoveries," Campbell told Bloomberg.

Disclosure of industry ties is not currently required by many institutions, even in clinical trials. And recent investigations have revealed that ghostwriting of "researcher-penned" journal articles paid for by pharmaceutical companies may be commonplace.

The funding of academic medical research has become a tense topic in recent months, especially as money for grants has become more scant.

Despite these challenges, the survey did find that research in general is thriving at academic medical centers. And a sizable portion of researchers—22 percent—don't receive any outside funding at all. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka the economic stimulus package) and in an effort to streamline health care, Congress earmarked $1.1 billion in government funds for medical research, which may help while other budgets are tight.

Cutting off industry funding, however, may not be the best scientific solution, as the authors write, "Current policies and initiatives to restrict academic-industry relationships should balance the advantages to clinical development against the threats of scientific integrity."

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/dra_schwartz