The Pfink tank: pharmaceutical industry’s role in promoting laissez faire capitalism

Contributed By James Astor

Think drug companies are dominated with scientists pushing each other to find the next cure? Think drug companies have little to do with the unfounded narrative that the welfare state is unaffordable? Think again.

Through think tanks, multinational companies can radically re-orientate party political policy along the lines of free-market corporatism. A firm that funds free-market groups on an epic scale is the world’s largest pharmaceutical firm, Pfizer.

Pfizer have been involved in funding think tanks since the 1980s, particularly under the 22 year guidance of Catherine Barr Windels. As Senior Director for Worldwide Policy Mobilization at Pfizer, she helped to create new think tanks and networks of think tanks in Europe, Canada, Africa, Asia, and the US.[1]  Paul Belien of the conservative Brussels Journal has described Windels menacingly as the “godmother of think tanks”:

American pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which has a philosophy of supporting young people with new initiatives through the good care of Catherine Windels.[2]


Catherine Barr Windels’ Linkedin profile states she has “over three decades of public affairs experience in philanthropy [most notably to the Republican Party], government and business… and policy development…. she served as Pfizer’s liaison with policy think tanks around the world.[3] In that capacity, she provided seed support to numerous new policy institutes, developed specialized networks of think tanks and policy experts across the globe, and sponsored studies and signature events”.[4]

“Before joining Pfizer in 1987, [Windels] served in the Reagan Administration for six years, in positions including that of Acting and Associate Director of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, and Director of the Office of Media and Special Programs at the U.S. Department of Transportation”, highlighting the Galbrathian point that governments and multinationals share executives through a revolving door.[4]

Post-Pfizer, Windels now appears on the board of the Centre for Medicines in the Public Interest (CMPI).[5] This group says it is independent on its website, but with corporate pharmaceutical lobbyists such as Windels on its board one must question its independence. The CMPI promotes ‘pharmaceutical innovation’ and makes extensive excuses as to why healthcare is unaffordable through the public purse. The CMPI should be regarded as a front group considering its two majority funders are Pfizer and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).[6]

Pfizer also funds PhRMA coincidently, with other multinational pharmaceutical giants. PhRMA, with Pfizer, also sponsors the Centre for Medicine in the Public Interest (CMPI).[7-9] The CMPI sponsored the American anti-Obama Tea Party Patriot protests designed to sink Obama’s healthcare reforms.[10] The Tea Party have extremist and racist links, but what does that matter when there’s money at stake in free markets for pharmaceuticals?[11] Pfizer effectively sank Obama’s plans for socialised medicine in the US by-proxy.

If the misinformation wasn’t complete enough, prominent Tea Party bloggers claimed that drug companies made a deal with the Whitehouse to keep prices high.  In many ways they did, through the revolving doors of multinationals and the US government, but it was with the help of the corporate financed and fuelled American Tea Party protests.[11] The Tea Party’s campaign forced Obama into the pockets of manufacturers as money was poured into democrat seats and crosshairs were drawn on democrat senators’ heads. Eventually an advertising campaign funded from the manufacturers’ pockets was required to force through the most miserly reforms, by that time Obama was beat. [12] The reforms resulted in the pharmaceutical firms securing “extended markets”, leaving up to 15 million US citizens without access to healthcare.[13]

Coincidently PhRMA is a member of the Stockholm Network, and on closer examination, Pfizer also fund the Stockholm Network.[14] The Stockholm Network says it is an independent network of for profit and non-for-profit European organisations, on examination the Stockholm Network is a private hub of non-for-profit libertarian think tanks with corporate backers.[7] Beware, non-for-profit is a slogan that returns again and again when one examines the manipulation of  the socioeconomic-horizon.

When the Stockholm Network came out with the slightly left of market-fundamentalist statement that “more state involvement in Research and Development was required” it was forced to backtrack as right-wing think tank funders pulled out.[7] Not so independent. But hey, they give you the opportunity to network with business secretary Vince Cable![15]

A Stockholm Network UK representative is Policy Exchange.[15] simply says that Policy Exchange is another independent educational think tank.[16] However, Labouristas will recognise Policy Exchange to be independent to the point that the Rt Hon Michael Gove, the Coalition’s education secretary, was Policy Exchange’s chairman prior to the general election and Francis Maude, the Tory Minister, was Policy Exchange’s founder.[17,18]

Pfizer have funded think tanks across the right with their allies for decades.[19] Their aim is to make money, think tanks are a useful way of pushing the narrative that socialised healthcare is impossible as it is too expensive, and that more money needs to be directed to pharmaceutical companies for research and development [read: to swell their profits]. Therefore a free market in drug prices is required to treat sick little Jonny’s disease for which there is no cure. In reality, patients come a poor second to money, me-too medicines and advertising.[20]

Pfizer fund some science based lobby groups such as Sense about Science – but they also fund the Stockholm Network who have climate change deniers among their membership.[21-23] They also fund the Tea Party when it suits them, as we have seen, who have strong fundamental Christian links and deny climate change.[24] Science meets the religious fundamentalist with Pfizer’s funding streams.

Catherine Barr Windels can look back on her career with pride, and those of us with a social conscience with in disgust. Whatever happened to the patient in all this?

[1],8/action,show_content/id,22/_popup,1/ [Accessed 09/08/11]

[2] [Accessed 09/08/11]

[3] [Accessed 09/08/11]

[4] [Accessed 09/08/11]

[5] [Accessed 09/08/11]

[6] [Accessed 09/08/11]

[7] 01/06/11

[8] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[9] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[10] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[11] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[12] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[13] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[14] [Accessed 01/06/11]

[15] [Accessed 01/06/11]

[16] [Accessed 01/06/11]

[17] [Accessed 01/06/11]

[18] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[19] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[20] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[21] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[22] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[23] [Accessed 02/06/11]

[24] [Accessed 02/06/11]

Graphics: @ Roughcollie

10 thoughts on “The Pfink tank: pharmaceutical industry’s role in promoting laissez faire capitalism

  1. Fantastic piece of journalism exposing the links between corporations and government via Think Tanks. I believe that Pfizer also support UK think tanks like Progress, the New Labour pressure group within the Labour Party.

    Think tanks are another feature of the neoliberal order and their policy proposals, like the ratings agencies, should only be considered in the full knowledge of who has funded them. In the words of Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’, “Follow the money!”


  2. It’s highly likely that progress members won’t know. I could have written pages on this one subject.

    There’s also a lot of technical lobbying going on that looks innocent. For example lobbying against value based pricing. The idea is that new drugs – note not existing – will be value based. The pharm ind sponsored think tanks are largely against value based pricing. On the face of it our govt makes large claw backs from the pharm ind and it looks a raw deal. However, the UK “market” is used as a high price reference point (depending on the value of the pound), the high price reference is then translated to foreign markets where no clawback mechanism exists and there is an extensive free market in opahrmaceuticals – such as the US. It’s rather like a ‘beggar thy neighbour’ economic policy – just affecting lives in a more immediate manner.


  3. I would really like to know more .. and presumably this is the case for all the pharmaceutical companies. Pfizers are not alone in this mode of lobbying. Certainly the private healthcare companies like Unum, GHC, and global management consultants such as KPMG, are also big funders of UK think tanks.


  4. Assuming we agree that the existence of researchers thinking about future public policy is a good thing, what suggestions do people have about how this should be funded?


    • Hi Chris,

      I think there are researchers of public policy and then there are groups that are pushing a narrative. Researchers of public policy or social science in the univeristies more often than not – but not always – offer evidence based research. Such research is peer reviewed for quality and bias. Much of the noise that stems from thinktanks is not evidence based, it is simply propaganda.

      Importantly, I think there needs to be greater transparency over who is funding who. The term “independent”, for example, is being widely abused. Thinktanks with Conservative MPs on their boards and backed by large corporate donations are unlikely to be independent.

      The conditions of corporate funding often transpires into corproates being present on the thinktank’s board where, as the above article outlined, they have significant control over think tank output.

      The whole culture of thinktanks, and the advent of the consultancy, and now of political party outsourcing – in addition to the insourcing in “Britain under seige” – does not make a healthy political democracy in my opinion.

      Rather than the nature of the funding, it is the direction of the funding and the arrival of the entities mentioned that I think needs addressing.


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