Juliana Thomas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

January 7, 2019; New York Times with ProPublica

Observers have long noted the problem of the revolving door between federal agencies and the nation’s largest corporations. Consider former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, who now serves as the acting administrator of the EPA. Now we see the same dynamic recreate itself in the nonprofit sector, threatening our credibility and stewardship responsibilities.

Dr. José Baselga, the former medical director of the nonprofit Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), has become the leader of a newly created unit of AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish drugmaker, even as the nonprofit is being actively investigated by two large investigative news organizations. At stake is the ability of nonprofit organizations to protect their unique mission and role, one that should be very distinct from the aims of commercial businesses.

At MSKCC, Baselga had been responsible for overseeing the important work of one of the nation’s leading nonprofit research hospitals. In that role, he oversaw cutting-edge research that was supported by government and philanthropic funding. Like many innovative organizations, MSKCC saw the need to partner with for-profit drug companies, judging that this was necessary to effectively move the work out of the laboratory into worldwide delivery, sharing important treatments and the economic value of new medications.

Along the way, individual researchers saw no conflict in serving on the boards of their drug company partners and holding ownership stakes in organizations with which their nonprofit employer partnered. The relationships were not transparent, and important research findings were published without their authors clearly indicating their commercial ties. Baselga resigned when, according to the New York Times, it became known that “he had failed to accurately disclose his conflicts of interest in dozens of articles in medical journals. He later resigned from the boards of the drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb and the radiation equipment manufacturer Varian Medical Systems.” He was also forced to resign as editor of a respected journal.

Baselga strongly denies that there were conflicts, asserting that any errors or omissions were innocent and “inadvertent.” Now, just weeks after leaving the nonprofit world, he has begun a new job for one of the non-disclosed for-profit organizations at the center of this controversy. According to the New York Times, he will be leading a for-profit unit that will “work to bring transformative medicines to patients” and will “support growth and sharpen the focus on our main therapy areas, speeding up decisions and making us more productive in our mission to bring innovative medicines to patients.”

NPQ’s recent coverage of the ethics controversy at Memorial Sloan Kettering that resulted in Baselga’s dismissal concluded with a warning about its wider implications for the nonprofit sector:

The growing role of for-profit organizations in areas previously not seen as of commercial interest makes MSKCC’s experience of wider interest for the field. As funders see profit potential in the work of nonprofits, how will leaders protect their autonomy, their mission, and the interests of those they serve? Hopefully, these questions can be asked and answered before new relationships are formed and too much damage is done.

Baselga’s quick jump over the wall to the for-profit sector makes this concern even greater.

For AstraZeneca, this switch makes sense. In their statement heralding their good fortune, they said the “reflects the company’s shift toward cancer treatments, one of the hottest areas in the drug industry.” The loss to MSKCC, however, is more than just that of an able researcher. As the revolving door separating elected officials and other governmental policymakers from lobbying firms has eroded trust in government, nonprofits risk losing the trust of those they serve. Trust in the quality of future work is at risk, as is their reputation for honest science and patient focus over profits. And this can serve as a lesson for the entire sector.—Martin Levine