The Trouble with Science Funding

April 8, 2016 | 4:34 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

“We should acknowledge the elephant in the room” one panelist said.

Last week I attended a half-day event put on by Scientific American.  The topic was media coverage of scientific topics and the “elephant” was the event’s corporate sponsorship. The sponsors were Johnson & Johnson and GMO Answers, a website funded by The Council for Biotechnology Information, which includes leading agricultural companies such as BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta. GMO Answers is run by Ketchum, the public relations firm known for its work promoting the agriculture industry. Many on social media expressed disapproval with the funding of the event. How could Scientific American host such a biased event? many wondered. But is the sponsorship of such an event inherently problematic? The discussion raised questions about the appropriate role of private sector funding for scientific events and for scientific research. Let’s dive into the challenges of private sector funding of science.  Here goes.

Rule #1: Disclosure

SciAmFlyerFirst and foremost, funding sources for scientific events, conferences, and research should be disclosed publicly in a clear and obvious location.  This is a given. Scientific journals routinely ask authors to disclose real or perceived conflicts of interest and to list funders in acknowledgements. These are excellent places to disclose all funding sources and the scientific community expects this. And notably, there are consequences for scientists who don’t and are discovered, as we’ve seen on everything from hydraulic fracturing research to climate change contrarians to doctors’ pharmaceutical connections.

At the event I attended last week, at least one journalist who spoke claimed he didn’t learn of GMO Answers’ sponsorship until after agreeing to participate. This is inappropriate. Potential participants should know about the sponsorship up front before judging their interest in participating. (Note: Scientific American claimed this was unintentional.) To that end, journalists also should disclose any compensation they’ve received for participation in such events.

How should we judge corporate-funded science?

Provided we know about funding sources, how should the resulting science be judged? Should we assume corporate-funded science is tainted? Biased? Incorrect? It depends on the context. At a minimum, science should be subject to a greater level of scrutiny if it receives funding from an industry with direct interests in the implications of that science. Would you trust a study funded by the tobacco industry that touted health benefits of smoking? Of course not. (The University of Maryland, for example, learned this lesson recently on its reporting of a shoddy study promoting the medical benefits of chocolate milk for concussion recovery. The research was sponsored by the very brand of chocolate milk being studied—what odds!).

What would greater scrutiny mean for such science? It means that to trust the science produced, we would expect the research to follow best practices for ensuring the independence of the science: Strong external peer review from scientists who have no conflict of interest, disclosure of all financial ties, public availability of methods and, where appropriate data, and no manipulation of results or messaging for corporate (organizational) purposes.

But funding relationships aren’t necessarily problematic. Private sector funding can be routed through a neutral third party to insulate the science from inappropriate influence. The Health Effects Institute, for example, is a nonprofit that allocates and oversees research funds from the motor vehicle industry and the EPA to academic researchers studying the health impacts of air pollution. Corporations can name buildings, support student scholarships, and sponsor events in ways that are less likely to have direct impact on the quality of science. These actions do, however, undoubtedly influence people, if immeasurably, and they lend science credibility and access to the funding agent. (Perhaps a subject for a future blog…)

Further, the nature of the relationship matters, and this should also be disclosed. An arrangement where the sponsor has control over how the study is conducted or what results get published (or the ability to review as in the case of Willie Soon’s ExxonMobil funding) is far more problematic than an unattached grant where a scientist is free to conduct and publish the research as they see fit and free to name the funder.

When does corporate funding become a problem?

Good science can have industry funding. However, researchers who accept direct money from financial interests in the areas in which they work shouldn’t be surprised if their work is subject to greater scrutiny. And importantly, they should proactively disclose that funding. It could be exemplary science, but we can’t forget the past and current activities of some industries when it comes to funding science.

Many private sector actors have demonstrated time and again their inability to respect science and play by its rules. The sugar and corn syrup industry have paid seemingly independent scientists to spout industry talking points without disclosing their affiliation to the industry. The chemical industry has paid consultants to conduct intentionally misleading studies to hide the health impacts of its chemicals, while countless people die because the chemicals go unregulated. And it was recently revealed that the NFL used incomplete data sets to obscure the relationship between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

For many people (and I’d include myself here), these actors have abdicated any right for us to assume they are acting in good faith. The burden of proof should be on these industries to demonstrate they are following independent science protocols in order to regain the public trust. In some cases, entire industries have had their social license to operate revoked. As the most prominent example, any science affiliated with the tobacco industry is no longer considered credible by most.

Increasingly, the fossil fuel industry is being stigmatized in the same way. Investors are weary of the industry’s political activities around climate change, an ever increasing list of state attorney generals are investigating oil companies for deceiving the public about their products, and scientists are telling the largest society of earth scientists in the world that they don’t want ExxonMobil to sponsor their conference.

The plight of the scientist

Many have argued that corporate funding allows research that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. It’s true. As government grants get increasingly competitive and public science funding decreases, researchers are strapped to find funds to support their work, especially in light of academic pressures to bring dollars to their university. For individual studies and events, scientists and institutions must decide if industry money is worthwhile and in what capacity.

I thought the Scientific American event was an interesting and substantive conversation on science communication. For example, the journalist panel had an enlightening discussion on if and how to cover those with misinformed views on a scientific topic (e.g. prominent voices with anti-vaccination views), whether their coverage would lend credibility to misinformation, and how to provide tools to their audience to judge the credibility of their sources.  But online the conversation instead turned to the “industry taint” of the event rather than its content. If the goal of the event was to have an honest conversation on the challenges of portraying scientific topics in the media (and we might speculate on whether or not that was the goal), was the added funding from GMO Answers and Johnson & Johnson worth it?

As scientists and as consumers of scientific information, we must judge for ourselves what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to private sector funding of science. We must demand transparency around funding sources and funding relationships so we have the full picture with which to judge. And we must hold actors accountable when we find inappropriate funding relationships. This, unfortunately, will mean that we’ll often have to deal with a lot of elephants in the room.