As commercial interests increasingly influence the course of research, Phil Baty reports on a campaign to blow the whistle on unethical science
Trade union leaders will today warn that the integrity of British science is being threatened by a dash for commercial cash. The problem is so acute, says an alliance of four leading unions, that it is launching a "charter for science" at the British Association's Festival of Science. The charter will include safeguards for those who blow the whistle on unethical scientists and their practices.
The alliance, comprising lecturers' union Natfhe, technicians' union MSF, the Association of University Teachers and the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, believes that the charter could be British science's last hope.
In universities, independent scientific research has been cut back as the public purse strings have been tightened for blue-skies research - research "devoted to the creation of knowledge without immediate usefulness". And in public research institutes, which increasingly rely on private money, there is evidence that research findings are being "tailored" to suit customer needs. An IPMS survey earlier this year found that a third of scientists working in government or in recently privatised laboratories had been asked to change their research findings. Some 17 per cent said that they had had to alter findings to suit the customer's preferred outcome, while 10 per cent said there was pressure on them to bend their results to help secure contracts.
IPMS assistant general secretary Val Ellis says: "It appears that commercialisation is leading public researchers to distort results." Such activity will only exacerbate the mistrust that the British public already feels towards scientists, while ministers will never be sure they are getting the best scientific advice.
The charter, launched today at a BA seminar of prominent whistleblowers in science, is the first step towards a solution, says Jerry Ravetz, an independent consultant who was formerly an academic philosopher of science. Ravetz, who drafted the charter, says: "No one in government sees a problem. They just tell the academics to hustle their arses and make some money for industry."
In Britain's handful of top research universities, dependence on private sources of income is acute. Government funding council cash as a proportion of income varies from nearly 70 per cent at the teaching-based universities to less than 10 per cent at the London Business School.
At Oxford and Cambridge universities, Imperial College, London, and University College London, research grants and contracts are the single biggest source of income - outstripping funding council cash.
Since 1994-95, the proportion of university income from funding council grants has fallen from 43.3 per cent (Pounds 4.26 billion) to 40.4 per cent (Pounds 4.8 billion). In the same period, the proportion of income from largely commercial "research grants and contracts" has increased from 14.5 per cent (Pounds 1.43 billion) to 15.2 per cent (Pounds 1.81 billion) - an increase of Pounds 373 million.
"There is less money for blue-skies research and a much greater reliance on commissioned research," says Tom Wilson, head of universities at Natfhe. "The money the Higher Education Funding Council dishes out for research is theoretically for blue-skies research, but in reality it just keeps the laboratories ticking over. Commercial money pays the salaries and funds the research."
Safeguarding "basic", blue-skies research is a key aim of the alliance's charter. The independence of this basic research, conducted largely in universities, must be guaranteed "by peer review, open publication and by autonomy over a significant portion of its resources", the charter says. To prevent corruption, which could "easily set in", the charter lists three tenets: support for the dual support system, in which research is funded by the funding councils and the research councils; the maintenance of peer review; and freedom to publish research findings.
But commercialisation smashes all three tenets. It removes the right of the researcher to publish: "Commercial sponsors can retain rights over publication," Wilson says. Commercial secrecy rules out proper peer review, and by the very nature of privately funded research, the state relinquishes control of the purse strings.
The unions are concerned that the blight is affecting government decisions on issues of scientific importance. For ministers, as commercialisation becomes an integral part of modern scientific life, problems are inevitable. But they argue that the solution is the better management of potential conflicts of interest. In the recent science white paper, out for consultation, ministers promise a new code of practice on scientific advice to government. The paper acknowledges that "the pool of available experts on certain complex topics may be small". As a result it "may be impossible to find scientists of sufficient calibre who do not have perceived interests".
The pitfalls are myriad: the scientists may have a personal or commercial interest in organisations that could be affected by the government legislation they are helping to shape, or their research funding could be dependent on such organisations. They may be paid as consultants by groups with strong vested interests in what is covered by the legislation. Scientific experts advising government should therefore declare any financial interest they have in, for example, a drugs or biotech company. In some cases an expert may need to be excluded from one or two of the government advisory committee's meetings. Assessments should be made based on the "financial value of the interest", the code says.
But the unions are not convinced. They insist that the only way to be sure that science retains its integrity is to enshrine open and clear-cut whistleblowing policies across the scientific community.
"Our charter should dramatically reduce the need for whistleblowing," says Ellis, "but the financial pressures will always be there. The ultimate safeguard is to ensure that wherever things go wrong, people are able and encouraged to blow the whistle."
The seminar "Is whistleblowing in science really necessary?", chaired by the editor of The THES, will be held at Imperial College, London, this afternoon as part of the British Association's Festival of Science. Science Alliance: EllisV@ipms.org.uk.
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WE HEAR YOU, BUT WE'RE NOT LISTENING
Richard Lacey (above) was dismissed as a "mad professor" out of his academic depth when he became one of the first scientists to reveal the human health risks of mad cow disease, BSE, in 1988.
Two years later, amid persistent claims by Lacey that people were at risk, the then agriculture minister John Gummer gave his daughter a hamburger for the benefit of TV cameras, claiming: "If I had a scintilla of doubt, would I allow my children to eat beef?" By then Lacey had suggested that BSE could be passed from a cow to her calves, prompting further dismissals, even though by that time the government had already carried out top-secret tests of this theory.
Lacey has since been vindicated, but in his book Poison on a Plate, he claims his whistleblowing cost him his chair in microbiology at Leeds University. He says unnamed NHS "bureaucrats" eventually "forced" him into accepting early retirement from Leeds under their plans to merge his department with the Public Health Service Laboratory. Days after he agreed to retire the merger decision was rescinded.
Leeds has since given him an emeritus post.
WONDER DRUGS THAT WEREN'T SO WONDERFUL
When British Biotech clinical research director Andrew Millar (left) cast doubt on the validity of his company's boastful claims about two new wonder drugs in March 1998 he was suspended.
His revelations to shareholders that pancreatic treatment Zacutex and potential cancer cure Marimastat might not be the panaceas the company suggested, sent shares tumbling - but not before some Biotech directors had made millions exercising their share options.
The company justified the suspension, claiming that after being passed over for promotion, Millar had been "having a bitch about the company". By April, the company was cleared of dodgy share dealing and Millar was sacked, accused of revealing confidential information about the company to third parties.
But in February 1999, almost a year after Millar was fired, Biotech admitted that it was disappointed with the results of trials for Marimastat. And in March it admitted that Zacutex did not work, vindicating both of Millar's key claims. "As it turned out," said Biotech chairman Christopher Hampson, "his prediction for Zacutex was correct."
In June, Biotech announced that it had "withdrawn its claims and allegations of improper behaviour" against Millar and had made an "appropriate payment" to him. "British Biotech recognises that Millar has always acted in accordance with his medical opinion, his professional obligations to patients involved in clinical trials, his conscience and his view of the best interests of British Biotech," the company said.