Academic and Industry Research Distorted by Financial Interests

Public universities function as powerhouses in the production of scientific data. Research conducted at such universities and by private industry has a huge impact on public policy as well as the decisions we make about our health and environment. According to a 2009 report by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), U.S. universities received an average of $33,417 of funding a year from medical device, pharmaceutical and other medical industry companies. Although this funding is critical for many scientists to be able to do their research, it can lead to self-censorship, suppression of data, or misrepresentation of results. Studies have confirmed that conflicts of interest can influence research in important ways. For example, a 1998 JAMA article asking ‘Why Review Articles on the Health Effects of Passive Smoking Reach Different Conclusions,’ concluded that 94% of industry sponsored reviews, but only 13% of non-industry sponsored reviews, yielded pro-tobacco industry results.

According to a September 2009 report by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), some academic disciplines have become so intertwined with industry that few academics are able to retain their independence. The report stated that many sectors not previously examined have been influenced by industry as well. For example, SGR found that chemical engineering and geology are strongly linked to oil companies and many life sciences departments have extensive links with the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. In fact, according to a survey published in the journal Health Affairs, more than half of academic research faculty in the life sciences at top schools reported financial ties to the industry.

See also ‘Effects of Soft Drink Consumption on Nutrition and Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,’ (2007) finding that results differed significantly when studies funded and not funded by the food industry were compared.

For an article proposing guidelines for industry funding of research (interestingly supported in part by Cadbury, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Mars Snackfoods, PepsiCo Inc, Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee, and Tate & Lyle) see ‘Funding food science and nutrition research: financial conflicts and scientific integrity’ (2009)

For an in-depth analysis of the benefits, along with the dangers, of these conflicts of interest, see ‘Is Sunlight Always the Best Disinfectant?’ (2009)

FDA failed to act on Warnings of Avandia Health Risks (July 16, 2010)
News of GlaxoSmithKline’s coverup of the health risks of their diabetes drug Avandia has also highlighted serious problems with scientific integrity at the FDA.  In 2006, FDA scientists who recommended requiring a warning label about Avandia’s possible Heart health risks were shot down and reprimanded by their superiors.  In 2007, the non-profit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, petitioned the FDA to inform patients that a low-fat, vegan diet would be as effective as the drug without carrying the same health risks.  They are now suing the the agency for failing to act on its recommendation.  In 2008, FDA scientists who expressed concern over risks to patients participating in a study of Avandia’s safety were ignored.  “FDA scientists who have questioned the safety of drugs such as Avandia, Vioxx and Ketek were not only were [sic] ignored, they were intimidated and censored,” said Francesca Grifo, director of Union of Concerned Scientist’s Scientific Integrity Program. “In each case, their concerns were justified, but they were heeded only after thousands of patients died or were seriously harmed.”

Diabetes Drug Maker Covered Up Health Risks for 11 Years (July 13, 2010)
According to a New York Times investigation, in 1999 GlaxoSmith Beechem, which later became GlaxoSmith Kline, discovered that its diabetes drug, “Avandia,” created serious heart risks in some patients.  Instead of releasing this information to the public and the FDA, the company spent eleven years trying to hide the evidence.  Questions have been raised as to how this information escaped the scrutiny of the FDA, where officials are now considering whether the drug should be taken off the market.

BP hinders measurement of rate of oil flowing into Gulf of Mexico (2010)
When oil began flowing into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, BP initially refused to allow scientists to send measuring instruments to the site, and delayed releasing a video feed of the leak. When it was finally made available, the company insisted that there was no “reliable” way to measure the rate of flow using the feed. But scientists like Steven Wereley at Purdue University argued that there are in fact a number of proven methods for making just such a calculation, and used the feed to calculate a rate of flow ten times higher than the rate BP was providing at the time.

The company’s financial interest in underestimating the damage done by the oil took many forms. Shareholders had already been fleeing, and they faced calls for tougher regulations. On top of that, accurate information about the extent of the damage were likely to play a role in criminal charges and liability for what might had the potential to be the largest tort in US history. Nonetheless, perhaps greater transparency would have been a better policy for BP, as their attempts to suppress information about the spill was widely covered by the press and likely did great damage to their image and the public’s trust of the oil industry in general.

Update: Wereley’s calculations appear to have been close to the mark.

Intellectual Property as a tool for suppressing research (2010)
Over 20 percent of the human genome is already included in patent claims, leaving the landscape for medical researchers complex, burdensome and often prohibitive.  In 2009, a handful of cancer patients, professional organizations, several individual doctors and researchers along with the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the decision to grant a patent to Myriad Genetics for the genes BRCA1 and 2, which are associated with hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

As the ACLU explained, the patents give the company the exclusive right to perform diagnostic tests on these genes and to prevent any researcher from even looking at the genes without first getting permission from Myriad. The lawsuit charged that the challenged patents are illegal and restrict both scientific research and patients’ access to medical care.  In addition the lawsuit alleged that patents on human genes violate patent law because genes are “products of nature.”  The plaintiffs argue that these patents also violate the First Amendment because the patent holders can prevent others from performing research on an entire body of knowledge.

Although the decision did not reach the First Amendment argument, the New York federal court ruled that these patents are invalid.  In the first decision of its kind the court recognized the implications of the case when it stated, “the resolution of the issues presented to this Court deeply concerns breast cancer patients, medical professionals, researchers, caregivers, advocacy groups, existing gene patent holders and their investors, and those seeking to advance public health.”

See also a 60 Minutes segment on this topic.

For an opinion piece on the effect of patents that cover business processes or methods, see ‘Why Technologists Want Fewer Patents.’

Update: ‘US Supreme Court avoids clarifying patent stance’

Silencing internal dissent in private industry (2009)
Conflicts of interest do not stem solely from outside funding, but can also come into play when researchers or their employers have direct financial interests in the outcome of their work.  According to a 2009 New York Times article, the Global Climate Coalition, which represents industries tied to fossil fuels, ignored its own scientists.

As the coalition was launching public relations campaigns and lobbying Congress around the idea that greenhouse gases were not the cause of global warming, its own scientists were saying they could not refute the evidence that the gases played a role in climate change. This fact came to light during the course of an ongoing lawsuit when an internal report was filed with the court. The report noted that “scientific basis for the greenhouse effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” This finding was ignored and the Coalition continued contradicting itself.

When companies withhold information or, as here, flat out contradict themselves, the public dialogue is left worse off. This form of private censorship is especially damaging when it concerns controversial topics that potentially could have a big impact on our global future.

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For examples of industry taking legal action to prevent research or publication not favorable to their interests, see:

‘Company Tried to Block Report That Its H.I.V. Vaccine Failed’ (2000)
‘Research suppressed for seven years by drug company’ (1997)