Wednesday, June 22, 2005

"Bought Scientists:" Choosing Sides In The Science Wars

The good thing about the growing community of public health-related blogs is that the more they reproduce, the lighter the burden on each one of us individual writers. Revere at Effect Measure has come to my rescue tonight with a review of an article by Lila Guterman in The Chronicle of Higher Education on "the vexing question of corporate influence on research in occupational and environmental health....and the ethical issues that arise when researchers work for industries with a stake in the outcome of their research."

I have written numerous times (most recently here and here) about the corporate-sponsored corruption of science by the business community whose total focus is on reducing or preventing regulatory intereference with their right to do whatever they want, regardless of the effects on workers, communities or the environment.

But the area of Guterman's article that never ceases to amaze and upset me is the size of the disparity between the money devoted to workplace and environmental health versus other areas of medical research:
For instance, the 2004 budget of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for extramural research on workers' public health -- work done under the institute's auspices but not within its walls -- was $81.6-million. Environmental-health research fares relatively better: the 2004 budget for outside research at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is $462-million.

But both figures pale in comparison with some of the better-financed areas of medical research. The National Cancer Institute, for instance, spent $3.7-billion on extramural research in 2004, while the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases spent $3.5-billion.
And then we have the industry contribution: "An industry-sponsored study done 10 years ago of risks in just one field, semiconductor manufacturing, cost about "half the extramural research budget of NIOSH," says the academic scientist who spearheaded it."

Not everyone is happy with industry-sponsored research:
Some researchers in these fields think any collaboration with industry taints the science. "This isn't a matter of minor ethics," says Joseph LaDou, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. "These are bought scientists."
Revere, who occasionally manages to be much more measured and rational than those of us here at Confined Space, points out that there are honest people working for the bad guys, as well as ethically-challenged corporate whores. But that's not the worst problem.
The real problem is not these blatant violations of scientific integrity, as bad as that is. It is the distortion of the research agenda itself. Money doesn't have to buy answers as long as it can control the questions, directing them toward things of interest to industry and away from things that are dangerous. A scientist doesn't have to alter results to serve corporate interests.
The problem is that not only an they expend seemingly inexhaustible amount of money to "manufacture uncertainty," but they can also create all kinds of crazy "scientific" theories that force the dwindling number of scientists who are on the side of public/occupational/environmental health to waste their scarce resources playing defense.

Revere, who admits to "have been involved in numerous court and regulatory proceedings on the side of plaintiffs, consumers or the public interest" (as if we couldn't figure that out) concludes that:
In the last analysis it comes down to where one's sympathies lie. I do not testify or do research for industry for a practical reason and a personal one. Practically, my time and energy are limited. Industry has the money to buy the services of whomever they wish. They don't need me, so I save what resources I have for those who need them more and have a harder time finding them. It is not a judgment that industry can never be right, but a choice about where and how I want to devote my energies and how I want to integrate my work and my hopes for the world I live in. Others have made different choices. I wish they wouldn't but that's the way it is.

There are charlatans and good scientists on both sides. About the former, there is little to say. And for the latter, the question becomes that of the old Labor song, "Which side are you on?"