Tufts professor warns against ‘corporate capture’ of science

Friday, February 24, 2006

Conflicts of interest resulting from corporate sponsorship of scientific research has led to skewed findings in fields from medicine to environmental science, said Sheldon Krimsky, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University. Krimsky gave a lecture titled “The Corporate Capture of Academic Science” in Salomon 001 yesterday afternoon.

Krimsky said researchers are often pressured by their corporate sponsors to produce results that align with corporate goals. “Corporations view science not as the generation of truth, but as one among many inputs to productions,” Krimsky said.

As an example, he presented the findings of a body of research material on whether a chemical produced in plastic containers was harmful to certain animals. All 11 articles funded by the company manufacturing the chemical concluded it was harmless. Of the unfunded research articles, 94 showed the chemical was harmful, while 10 indicated it was not.

“You have to understand the ability of an industry to manufacture uncertainty,” Krimsky said, referring to the practice of companies that effectively pay off experts to publish findings that contradict already-published articles. “If you’re a company and you have a product X (which studies say is harmful to humans), if you can produce another body of work that says that it isn’t harmful, this balances it off. The weight of the evidence turns out to be zero.”

Krimsky added, “You have to be quite skeptical when you see a body of science that has been funded by one sector and that … seems to be pushing in a certain direction.”

Krimsky gave a number of examples of researchers who were essentially told what their studies should conclude in advance.

In addition, he said scientific journals and ethics and science advisory committees are at times guilty of ignoring conflicts of interest, which also generates skewed findings. Many have taken steps to disclose conflicts of interest, but Krimsky said this is not sufficient. “Publishing conflicts of interest is not the same thing as prohibiting them,” Krimsky said.

Krimsky also gave a number of “golden rules” that he said must be adopted to prevent conflicts of interest. Among the ideas for reform was separating those who produce knowledge in academia and those who have a financial interest in the knowledge. The need for greater disclosure of conflicts of interest and greater distance between drug testers and drug producers was also included. Krimsky said that no researcher should accept contracts that restrict autonomy or that compromise full ownership of the findings.

He also took issue with a number of laws introduced in the 1980s that give universities title to intellectual property developed with taxpayer money. Krimsky compared this to going into a gambling hall, using public money to place bets and then keeping the earnings. He said the patents that result are a part of what makes drugs so expensive.

Krimsky said he sees hope that conflicts of interest will diminish in the future.

“Science journals are starting to get wise,” Krimsky said, noting that a number had instituted policies that require contributors to disclose the sources of their funding. Universities are becoming more aware of conflicts of interest among faculty as well, he said, citing a lawsuit against a University of Pennsylvania professor who didn’t disclose a conflict.

Krimsky added that corporate funding isn’t a bad thing, so long as scientists or professors maintain their autonomy. But he said this can be difficult and that not taking sponsorship has definite advantages. Professors accept moderate salaries “because we have autonomy,” he said.

The Brown Bioethics Society hosted the lecture.