Scientists compromised by commercial links

Concerns are mounting that scientific and technological research funded by business could be undermining universities’ openness and independence. Zoë Corbyn reports

October 12, 2009

The rise in industrial funding of university science is compromising its quality as well as inhibiting research for the wider public good.

These are the claims of the pressure group Scientists for Global Responsibility, in a new report out today entitled “Science and the corporate agenda: the detrimental effects of commercial influence on science and technology”.

“We have gathered extensive evidence of the damaging effects of the commercial influence on science and technology,” said Stuart Parkinson, co-author of the report. “Urgent action – by government and others – is needed to resolve these problems. The trustworthiness of science and scientists is at stake.”

The study argues that while universities have always relied on business, along with the state and philanthropists, for funding scientific work, government policy to drive much closer links between business and universities has created a relationship that is now “distinctly unbalanced” in favour of commercial interests, undermining universities’ openness and independence.

Based on an analysis of five sectors – spanning the pharmaceutical, tobacco, military, oil and gas and biotechnology industries – it found: bias in commercially funded studies, so only results favourable to the funder are reported; an increase in use of commercial confidentiality agreements that impede the free flow of data; and a lack of policing of scientists’ conflicts of interest, so that the true extent to which research is potentially being compromised is unknown.

“There can be subterfuge, but often it is simply that when commercial funders are involved there is a bias towards funding researchers who have views that are more sympathetic to the industry,” Dr Parkinson told Times Higher Education. “Researchers who hold different points of view don’t attract the funding, or research that results in a different point of view does not get publicised.”

The report also criticises the Government’s emphasis on delivering economic goals from research. “The power and influence of some corporations, and the increased pressure on researchers to bring in funding from business, means that academic departments are increasingly orientating themselves to commercial needs rather than to broader public interest or curiosity-driven goals,” it notes. “The emphasis is undermining the ability of science and technology to deliver a diverse range of social and environmental benefits.”

To fix the problems, it makes 16 recommendations, including that universities adopt “minimum ethical standards” in their partnership agreements with business and publish “comprehensive data” on the nature of these partnerships. It also says that a new scientific organisation to distribute funds based on the public interest should be set up and calls for more safeguards to prevent conflicts of interest.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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