Academia and science are expected to be self-policing and self-correcting. However, incentives throughout the funding system induce stakeholders to pretend misconduct does not happen, or worse (TED: Barry Schwartz And The Importance Of Practical Wisdom).
Before we try to figure out how to address the incentive structure, the manner in which political influence changed the role of the dominant corporate actors in research intensive industries is worthy of reflection.
How we got to now
Examples of bias, misrepresentation, ethical shortcomings and other conflicts of interest in research go back decades. Over time, the increasing sophistication of the means by which conflicts of interest are exploited in research selection, scoping, performance and reporting and the strategic deployment of manipulative efforts through the halls of academic, political and corporate power can be traced. They undermine the trust necessary to establish cross-disciplinary research partnerships and investment vehicles.
Association of funding and conclusions in randomized drug trials: a reflection of treatment effect or adverse events? (2003) - adjusted analyses showed that trials funded by for-profit organisations were significantly more likely to recommend the experimental drug as treatment of choice (odds ratio, 5.3; 95% confidence interval, 2.0-14.4) compared with trials funded by nonprofit organisations. This association did not appear to reflect treatment effect or adverse events.
Ethical Considerations for Research Involving Prisoners (2007) - an ethical framework to include collaborative responsibility and enhance systematic oversight of research, with consistently applied standards is a necessary component of research engagement (developing on the work published in a 1976 report to the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research).
Big Oil Goes to College: An Analysis of 10 Research Collaboration Contracts Between Leading Energy Companies and Major U.S. Universities (2010) - highlights the layers of control from exclusion of adverse results (direct) to project selection (indirect)
Credibility of industry-funded clinical trials (2013) - calls for independent research design assessment.
Industry-financed clinical trials on the rise, as number of NIH-funded trials falls (JAMA) (2015) - the number of newly registered industry-sponsored trials increased 43% over the time period from 2006 (4,585) to 2014 (6,550). The number of newly registered NIH-funded trials decreased 24% over the same period from 2006 (1,376) to 2014 (1,048). This study included acknowledgements from researchers and research managers that research objectivity can be compromised by the company's bottom line since it costs millions of dollars to develop and test a product to get it on the market. It might be difficult to be objective when the economic stakes are so high.
Institutional Scientific Misconduct at U.S. Public Health Agencies: How Malevolent Government Betrayed Flint, MI - Flint and Washington D.C. drinking water crises include “scientifically indefensible” reports by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2004; U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology, 2010), reports based on nonexistent data published by the U.S. EPA and their consultants in industry journals (Reiber and Dufresne, 2006; Boyd et al., 2012; Edwards, 2012; Retraction Watch, 2015b; U.S. Congress House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 2016), and silencing of whistleblowers in EPA (Coleman-Adebayo, 2011; Lewis, 2014; U.S. Congress House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 2015)
Industry Sponsorship and Research Outcome - Research Bias (2017) - industry sponsored drug and device studies are more often favourable to the sponsor’s products than non-industry sponsored drug and device studies due to biases that cannot be explained by standard bias assessment tools. Industry sponsored studies reported satisfactory blinding more often than non-industry sponsored studies. In industry sponsored studies, there was less agreement between the results and the conclusions than in non-industry sponsored studies.
New Report Reveals Google’s Extensive Financial Support for Academia (Full report) (2017) - outlines a pattern of supporting research that is aligned with policy interest is an example of subtle influence being exercised at a grand scale. This report made headlines when researchers from the funded organisation proposed research topics that dared put adverse interests under the lens.
Unsavoury Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat (2018) - a lack of funding for nutrition research drives researchers to look to industry for research funding. The conflicts of interest are rampant. The studies are carried out according to strong scientific principles. But the bias seems to come in around the research question that’s asked, the interpretation of the results, putting a positive spin on findings even when the results are neutral.
Drilled (2018) - funding university research centres to control the science on which regulation is based, is one of the ways oil companies created climate denial and made it viral.
Those examples are drawn from recent history. The further back you look, the more you find the same issue, the same exploitation and the same effort to thwart any substantive redesign of the governance protocols applied, or the points in the system at which change can be introduced.
Where to from here?
There has never been a better time to build a robust, transparent system, that adapts to the diversity, risk-tolerance and political will of the people operating within the wider research community, and those depending on it to deliver the future.