Vested interests in science: a problem not likely to go away quietly

Examples of scientists who bent their results to make them fit their theories are countless. Mengele in Nazi Germany or Lyssenko in stalinist USSR are prime examples. The anthropogenic global warming “controversy” also has its wealth of scientists doing away with scientific principles (shameless self-citation). This, sadly, isn’t limited to anthropogenic global warming. Nearly every scientific result of importance to the economy or the society is scrutinised. And this is good, as long as it doesn’t lead to distortion of these results, manipulation of the public or threats to scientists raising an issue of public interest. The tendency to make scientific results stick to whatever ideology is around is strong, as the behaviour of the Reagan and Bush II administration showed (Oreskes and Conway have a few examples of this in their book “The Merchants of Doubt”), but there seem to be more actors arising on this front. The “debate” on climate change is an example of this: while the Bush II administration did everything it could to silence the scientists, going as far as modifying one of their reports, other organisations tried to obscure the science of climate change. As such, Freedom of Information bills are abusively used by right-wing think tanks to harass –and try to discredit– scientists working on anthropogenic climate change, and the journalists who report on this issue.

But one more worrying trend is various companies trying to get to scientific results to subvert the research at large, as BP was suspected of when it subpoened scientists who worked on the Deep Water Horizon leakage. Gaining access to the private e-mails of these scientists might lead to what happened with the “climategate”: misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the scientific process. Generally speaking, economic interests are a threat to the public expression of scientific knowledge. It is particularly evident in healthcare, where the tobacco or the asbestos industries tried to play down or cast doubt on the experiments showing that their main products were a threat to human health. Food industry can also try to remove any data that might damage its reputation, as a French scientist experienced when he denounced the risks associated with a high salt diet. Fortunately, the industry representing body lost, but you get the strategy at work is quite transparent: to defend against libel accusations, one has to engage a substantial amount of money, an amount that a scientist can rarely afford. And, lastly, but probably most worryingly, the pharmaceutical industry tends to refuse clinical trials which might shed light on the harmful  secondary effects of their star drug, push a publisher to present advertisements as a “journal” (no active lobbying is needed here, the ads revenue is in itself a motivation to do that). Worse still, conflicts of interest in the agencies charged to evaluate and authorise medicines lead to public health problems, as the mediator scandal in France showed last year. In the UK, the organism which does the job, NICE, has been subject to an intense lobbying as well, leading to a change in its appeal procedures – change demanded by the British Pharmaceutical Industry Association – that will effectively end its independence and might open it to more conflicts of interest (en).

On the other side of the spectrum, activists are keen to prevent research on GM crops or GM organisms in general. While I feel there are reasons to be vigilant and maintain companies like Monsanto, Novartis or Limagrain under tight scrutiny, I would not necessarily discount the possibilities offered by GM organisms in various situations. The fraction of the environmental movement involved in this has obviously other reasons beyond profit (although it would be interesting to study the input of the organic industry in this movement): they stem from a distrust of intellectuals and scientists in general (pretty much akin to what can be found in populist movements like the Tea Party) but also from a certain myth of Nature… Anyway, while this might present itself with more noble goals than simply preserving a company profit, it uses various methods of intimidation to prevent scientists to actually identify potential problems linked to GM technology and its spreading into the environment. In 2010, 61 persons destroyed an experiment conducted by the French agricultural research instute (the INRA) to test the feasibility of a GM strategy to fight the fanleaf virus — a virus leading to vast amounts of money being lost and for which no treatment exists. What is interesting here is that the research was public and that a consensus was reached between the grape owners, the INRA, the environmental agency and the local environmental movement. The process was so unique that it was published in PLoSBiology. Despite this broad consensus, the grapevines were destroyed. One might ask whether this is due to an ideological position rather than anything else: my personal experience is that the activists do not object to a particular use of the GM technology, they object to the technology itself. The irony being that here, according to the INRA, the study was set up to validate, or not, the use of GMOs against fanleaf virus. The wine industry is really important in France, as one might think, and the losses incurred by this virus are enormous (from 0.3 to 1 billion of euros a year), which brings a huge interests from various firms to develop a treatment against it. The INRA press release published during the trial of these individuals states that without public research, there is no way to know whether the claims of companies like Monsanto are sound (the press release, in French, can be found on Sylvestre Huet’s blog, here). A good point, I think, and one worth meditating by these activists.

While a better understanding of the inner workings of the scientific process might help to limit these practices, scientific results will always strengthen some vested interests while going against others and there is no reason that data distortion, manipulation or threats on scientists stop. No reason for the people who hold these interests, that is. The public, on the other hand, has every reason to support a full, independent scientific process.

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About ravingscientist01

Trained as a molecular geneticist, I did a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology. I am interested in science, its communication, the impact it can have on policies as well as the impact of various policies related to science may have on the latter.
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