Powerful corporate interests continue to use science and scientists to manipulate public opinion and influence public policy on health and the environment, experts said at a conference Friday. The public may be aware of several prominent examples such as lead, tobacco and asbestos, but the "publicized cases are the tip of the iceberg," said Drummond Rennie, the deputy editor of the "Journal of the American Medical Association."
"We have a major problem," Rennie told attendees of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's (CSPI) conference called "Conflicted Science: Corporate Influence on Scientific Research and Science-Based Policy."
CSPI's Integrity in Science project coordinated the one day conference to probe how corporate dollars and tactics influence the conduct of scientific researchers, physicians, academic institutions and policymakers.
The nonprofit nutrition advocacy organization contends that financial conflicts of interests facilitate manipulation of science in ways that ultimately threaten public health and environmental protection.
The links between science and commercial interests has grown stronger in the past 30 years, says CSPI Executive Director Dr. Michael Jacobson, "especially as government policies have affected a wide range of commercially important health and environment issues."
Universities are increasingly dependent on outside funding for research and there is a rising trend of the same academic institutions that are responsible for oversight of scientific integrity and human subjects protection entering financial relationships with the industries whose product evaluations they oversee, Jacobsen said.
There is concern that industry support of science can produce less than scientific findings. CSPI released a report last week that detailed how more than 170 disease related charities, health professional societies and university based institutions have questionable corporate ties to food, agribusiness, chemical, pharmaceutical and other interests. The organization does not conclude that industry sponsored research is "always bad or that companies should be prohibited from providing input to government agencies," Jacobson said.
"[But] scientific research is too important to the growth of knowledge and the protection of public health and environment to allow business interests to manipulate it for their own ends," according to CSPI's executive director.
Speakers at the conference cited evidence that researchers' financial ties to industry directly influence their published positions in supporting the benefit or downplaying the harm of the manufacturer's product.
Several shared personal stories of harassment by corporate interests seeking to discredit findings critical of industry practices or products.
For example, industry pressure has had a "chilling effect" on research into the health and environmental hazards of massive pig farms -- known as concentrated animal feedlots -- according to Dr. Steve Wing, an epidemiologist with the University of North Carolina.
Wing spearheaded a study of the human health impacts of these swine operations on a nearby North Carolina community, but the same day it was released pork industry lawyers threatened to sue Wing and the university for defamation and demanded participant records that had been obtained under promise of confidentiality.
The subsequent controversy and the close ties of the industry to the government and to the university have intimidated researchers and community members needed for such health studies, Wing explained.
The work of federal scientists can be subjected to industry pressure, according to Jeffrey Short, a chemist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Federal scientists complain about the actions of private scientists hired by Exxon to document the effects of the 1989 oil spill from the Exxon Valdez. (Photo courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council) Short says that private scientists working for Exxon have abused and manipulated the scientific process in order to challenge the federal government's data on the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Short, who was a member of the first scientific group to respond to the 11 million gallon oil spill, has served as the lead chemist for the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council, a consortium of federal and Alaska state government agencies formed to administer the restoration of the impacted region.
Research has shown that the oil from the spill is "surprisingly persistent and toxic," Short explained, "and has dissipated much slower than Exxon scientists had predicted."
Exxon scientists have misrepresented government data, shadowed field studies and tied up the government's work through extremely broad Freedom of Information Act requests - often requesting data from incomplete studies, according to Short.
"Privately supported scientists can manipulate data with impunity," Short said.
Few industries can match the tobacco industry's abuse of science, said panelist Lisa Bero, and the public is mistaken if they believe this is not continuing.
Bero, a professor at the University of California's San Francisco Institute for Health Policy Studies, says the tobacco industry - like other corporate interests - tries to manufacture uncertainty to "keep controversy alive."
She noted a May 2003 study published in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) that downplayed risks from second hand smoke. The study, which Bero and many others say contains fundamental flaws, was supported by funding from the Center for Indoor Air Research - a now defunct research center formed and funded by the tobacco industry.
In response to a wave of criticism for publishing the study, Richard Smith, the editor of the BMJ, wrote online that the journal "judged this paper to be a useful contribution to an important debate."
"We may be wrong, as we are with many papers," Smith wrote. "That is science. But I remain convinced that it would have been wrong to reject the study simply because it was funded by the tobacco industry."
Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the "Journal of American Medical Association," says there are few easy answers to the problems that result from corporate influence on research. As more and more researchers directly and indirectly develop industry ties, journals are increasingly wrestling with the issue of commercial influence on clinical research, Rennie said at Friday's conference, and have thus far not found any satisfactory answers. "Disclosure is the only answer we have come up with, but disclosure itself is not enough," Rennie said.
Industry ties to research are so prevalent - in particular through university funding - that Rennie says investigators, readers and editors must deal with this as bias when considering research and study results.
Fundamental change will require far reaching changes in policy, said keynote speaker Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University.
A series of laws, federal policies and court decisions have enabled private interest "stakeholder science" to gain influence over university research, explained Krimsky, author of a book on the subject - "Science in the Private Interest."
The key to change, Krimsky says, is separating the financial interests from the science.
Conference speakers also appealed to a higher calling for scientists and Rennie noted that "most clinical researchers are exceedingly upright individuals."
"But none of this would happen without the willing, harmful connivance of dependent academic researchers," Rennie said.
And there is also concern that the Bush administration is manipulating scientific advisory committees to further its political agenda. The General Accounting Office - the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress - is analyzing allegations of bias within science advisory committees across six agencies.
Speakers urged journalists to delve deeper and report on the conflicts of interests of scientists used as sources, and agreed that change is most likely if the public demands limits on the corporate role in science.
"We need to shout to the rooftops and let everyone know," Wing said. "The general public needs to be involved in this debate and they will not unless we speak out."
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