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Pressure on science

Posted by plosmedicine on 31 Mar 2009 at 00:23 GMT

Author: Arpad Pusztai
Position: Retired
Institution: Formerly: The Rowett Research Institute, Bucksburn, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK
E-mail: a.pusztai@freenet.co.uk
Submitted Date: March 07, 2008
Published Date: March 7, 2008
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

As research has become expensive and state funding has been drying up, most scientists welcome the influx of industrial money. However, this also has a number of not-so-welcome consequences. Understandably industry feels that the results of research financed by them are “confidential business information”. However, lack of transparency in research, particularly on important biological issues without scientific consensus may not only jeopardize human/animal health and lead to environmental damage, but is also against the interest of science. This prevents the exchange of results and views between scientists—the lifeline of science, without which no scientific progress is possible. Selective publication of data favourable to the sponsor is serious for society and also distorts science. One recent such paper that is typical of many suggests that selective reporting of the results of antidepressant drug trials could have had serious consequences for researchers, health care professionals and patients (1). Hiding data indicating the dangers of smoking, or that of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalitis), or that the genetically engineered tryptophan supplement was involved in the eosinophylia myalgia syndrome or not publishing the significant differences between some health-defining constituents of GE- and non-GE-soybeans, all had serious consequences for science and society (2).

Financing of research by industry does undoubtedly have a positive contribution to science but its distorting effects may also lead to the corruption of values and even the scientists (3,4). Thus, the Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Union of Concerned Scientists stated that a disinformation syndrome afflicts science and government scientists (5) because their survey showed that one in five scientists had been directed to exclude or alter information in a scientific document and more than half reported cases where commercial interests had induced the reversal or withdrawal of research conclusions. Moreover, a third had been stopped to openly express opinion in public or some even within the agency. An article in Nature (3) reported that more than 15 percent of the 3,247 respondents had been directed to change the design, methodology or reverse or withdraw research conclusions due to commercial interests and political intervention and 1.5 percent admitted falsification of data or plagiarism. A recent paper on the relationship between funding source and conclusion in nutrition-related articles concluded “Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favour of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health” (6).

Peoples’ views on science are undeniably influenced by media reports. Thus, the survey of the Institute of Professional Managers and Specialists in 2000 showing that 30 percent of the 500 respondents had been asked to tailor their research conclusions, 17 percent to change them to suit the customer’s preferred outcome, or if they wanted a further contract, and 3 percent were told not to publish “unwelcome” results, was seriously damaging for science. Similarly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 44 percent of the respondents have been directed to withhold data that indicated the need for protection of species and 20 percent to compromise their integrity by excluding or altering data. An investigation of 103 government scientists by the National Institutes of Health revealed that 44 government scientists violated ethics rules when working with pharmaceutical companies, and nine may have violated criminal laws. Many world-famous scientists, including Sir Richard Doll, had received financial payments from relevant industries whose products they investigated but without disclosing this in publications (7). The damaging consequences could be further exacerbated because of the 274 complaints of misconduct the Department of Health and Human Services could only investigate 23, due to staffing shortage.

This issue can no longer be ignored. A solution must be found for maximizing the benefits of industrial sponsorship but without jeopardizing the credibility of the research and the scientists. Questions, such as that whether the lure of profits could corrupt biomedical research (8,9) or whether industry sponsorship could undermine the integrity of nutrition research (10) must be settled to the satisfaction of both society and science. The previous high standing of scientists can only be restored if we return to the principles of openness and transparency.

References

1. Turner EH, Matthews AM, Linadartos E, Tell RA, Rosenthal R (2008) Selective publication of antidepressant trials and its influence on apparent efficacy. New England J.Med 358, 252-260

2. Pusztai A, Bardocz S (2006)“GMO in Animal Nutrition: Potential Benefits and Risks, In Biology of Nutrition in Growing Animals, ed. R. Mosenthin, J. Zentek, and T. Zebrowska (London: Elsevier Limited), 513–540.

3. Wadman M (2005)“One in Three Scientists Confesses to Having Sinned,” Nature 435, 718–719.

4. Pusztai A (2002) GM food safety: Scientific and institutional issues. Science as Culture, 11, 70-91.

5. Disinformation Syndrome Afflicts Federal Government Scientists (2005) http://www.peer.org/news_....

http://www.peer.org/docs/...

6. Lesser LI, Ebbeling CB, Goozner M, Wypij D, Ludwig DS (2007) Relationship between funding source and conclusions among nutrition-related scientific articles. PLoS Medicine, www.plosmedicine.org. Volume 4, issue 1/e5, 0001-0005.

7. Hardell L (2006) “Secret Ties to Industry and Conflicting Interests in Cancer Research,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine, http://www3.interscience.....

8. Krimsky S, Rothenberg LS (2001) Conflict of interest policies in science and medical journals. Editorial practices and author disclosures. Science and Engineering Ethics, 7, 205-218.

9. Krimsky S (2003) Science in the private interest; has the lure of profits corrupted biomedical research? New York, Rowman & Littlefield 2003. ISBN 074251479X.

10. Katan MB, (2007) Does industry sponsorship undermine the integrity of nutrition research? PLoS Medicine (www.plosmedicine.org). January 2007. Volume 4, issue 1/e6, 0001-0002.

No competing interests declared.