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Discourse 21 May 2019 Research limited: Me ...

Research limited: Merchants of corporate influence

DECCAN CHRONICLE.
Published May 21, 2019, 1:30 am IST
Updated May 21, 2019, 1:30 am IST
A large number of studies show clear and increasing evidence of the negative corporate influence on scientific endeavours.
A large systematic study found that in clinical research, pharmaceutical industry-sponsored studies are biased in favour of the sponsor’s products. Industry-sponsored studies had less concordance between results and conclusions compared with non-industry sponsored studies, suggesting that conclusions of industry-sponsored studies are less reliable.
 A large systematic study found that in clinical research, pharmaceutical industry-sponsored studies are biased in favour of the sponsor’s products. Industry-sponsored studies had less concordance between results and conclusions compared with non-industry sponsored studies, suggesting that conclusions of industry-sponsored studies are less reliable.

Researchers are discovering new ways to cope with the decline in public funding. New age scientists are shaping their careers as entrepreneurs and managing their own business as part of university incubation centres.

In 2015, The New York Times reported that scientists affiliated with a new non-profit organisation, Global Energy Balance Network, were downplaying risks of calorie intake on obesity, in contrast to the general scientific consensus. This resulted in a number of health experts criticising the non-profit, whose aim they said was to increase the profit of their funders. The soft drink major’s sales were declining, with average American consuming 25 per cent less sodas than in 1990s.

 

Scientists affiliated with the non-profit, some of whom had received funding for decades from the soft drink giant and serve in universities, declined any claims of corporate interference. Nevertheless, the non-profit was disbanded soon.

A large number of studies show clear and increasing evidence of the negative corporate influence on scientific endeavours. This employment of science and scientists is a means to shape public and policy discourses.

A large systematic study found that in clinical research, pharmaceutical industry-sponsored studies are biased in favour of the sponsor’s products. Industry-sponsored studies had less concordance between results and conclusions compared with non-industry sponsored studies, suggesting that conclusions of industry-sponsored studies are less reliable.

Studies funded by the sugar industry giants were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and obesity risk compared to studies with no such conflicts of interest.

The increasing corporate funding of research and corporate control is precisely happening at a time when public or state funding for higher education and research is declining. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that business sector funding research remains robust and has doubled compared to 2000-levels in 36 member countries. Government funding has slightly increased after the 2008 crash but growth remained low and currently makes up not even half of corporate funding levels.

However, there are important differences. In Germany, public funding has increased by about 50 per cent since 2008. In the US, government funding has flattened after 2008 crisis, and has slightly declined, whereas private funding stands at about $300 billion. In East Asia, the business funding has grown in proportion to the decline of public support.

In the US, while industry spent 65 per cent of total health-related research and development, federal agencies spent just $35 billion of the total $158.7-billion spending. A recent report from the US Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities found that funding declined by about 18 per cent less per student at public colleges and universities, even as the number of such colleges increased.

In the US, there is an overall decline of about $10 billion state funding to higher education compared to the time before the 2008 recession. It appears that cutting university budgets to secure other state obligations such as health and human services, is the least politically risky move for legislators, as is the case in California.

Strategies for corporate influence, however, are very old. Corporations have primarily adopted tobacco company strategies, namely to hire scientists, operate front groups and fund research.

Different ways the industry manipulates research include funding research comparing with a far inferior product rather than a direct competitor, use of ill-designed comparison groups, inappropriate admission of drugs and choosing less relevant outcomes to tests predesigned to show a major effect.

Industry-sponsored results can also have a chilling effect on the wider field. A few clinical studies report on negative results or harm’s data, as a result of industry’s influence in burying findings that are incongruent with business interests.

Individual researchers are likely to fall for these corporations’ tricks as reduced and decreasing prospects of public funding have led to a hunt for alternative revenue sources. Some universities have created research funding menus that mention how corporate funds will be used to direct research at their university. At the Department of Food Science, Purdue University, for $5,000 a year, corporates can get a chance to meet students, influence curricula and recruit university professors as potential consultants.

Apart from direct sponsorship, even philanthropy can determine research and policy priorities. Prof. Matthew Nisbet, Northwestern University, says that the analysis of $556 million in US-focused grants awarded between 2011 and 2015 by 19 influential foundations revealed that about a third of the total funding was on communication and mobilisation efforts to shape public opinion and federal climate and energy policy.  

Promise of Corporate Funding

Recalled as a golden period of science-industry partnership, the genesis of corporate involvement with science can be traced to the establishment of research centres in 1900, such as the General Electric Research Laboratory in New York.

This collaboration resulted in several inventions and multiple Nobel prizes. Some of these discoveries were happenstance, not directly the outcome of following the sponsoring company needs. It was believed that corporations would show the same enthusiasm about science as they expect a scientist to show enthusiasm about corporation goals.

This early happy collaborative period, while limited to niche basic sciences, has expanded to several disciplines, including social science and humanities. University administrators appear to be particularly enthusiastic, and never fail to impress the need for corporate funding to keep ahead in the race for funds, student enrolment numbers, and fame.    

In the US, research centres established by corporations appear to have enormous influence in generating local communities’ enthusiasm for science and science careers. So when these research centres close, they appear to impact not only the local economy but have social and cultural impacts. DuPont, which became synonymous with the city of Delaware, laid off 1,700 of its 6,000 local employees, including hundreds of scientists, as part of business restructuring plan. Because of its central role in shaping chemical engineering discipline, the research centre cuts will be felt nationwide.

There have been multiple attempts to make corporate funding transparent. One way has been a call for increasing disclosure standards. “Even if we think of ourselves as honest, objective and independent, scientific evidence demonstrates that our research can be influenced by the sources of our funding,” argued Naomi Oreskes from Harvard University and other colleagues.

Although more studies now explicitly identify sponsorship and its influence in shaping the research, reporting is still not widespread and it is not clear how conflict of issues is addressed. Because some of these studies are for government approval, they must meet higher standards of conflict of interest. As long as there is a lack of clear national or internationally accepted guidelines of corporate-university research engagement, misconduct will either be frequent or will be construed as frequently occurring.

(Dr Jagadish Thaker is senior lecturer, School of Communication, Journalism & Marketing, Massey University, New Zealand)

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