Manipulating research

 
By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

The ongoing debate on the role of private funding for public research is of vital importance. Already, the prestigious scientific journal, Nature , has asked its authors to disclose any financial interests related to their studies. Thirteen leading medical journals, including New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA ) and others are framing similar guidelines to promote transparency in funding of research, which affects public policy. The editors of these journals are concerned about the growing influence of drug industry funding on academic research and the growing number of cases where data is withheld, spun or otherwise manipulated when results are disadvantageous to the funder. A few months ago, the us General Accounting Office published a report, which identified concerns about industry-funded research and asked, believe it or not in George Bush's America, for greater involvement of government regulatory bodies in research.

This is not surprising. Science is hard money and politics and the stakes are high. Starting from tobacco research to drug trials and now the extremely contentious health and safety issues concerning genetically modified organism (gmos) and mobile telephones, it is important that public policy is not allowed to get manipulated or confused. The role of independent and credible research, therefore, becomes all the more important especially in an increasingly technocratic society.

What is worrying is that while industry has always supported some research, the balance of power in the collaboration between companies and academic institutions is shifting. Corporate research budgets are rising much faster than government and charitable foundations, making these institutions more dependent on industry sponsorship. At the same time, academics are facing increasing competition from the fast growing consultancy research sector, which is less constrained by traditions of independence and objectivity.

But academic institutions also need to build safeguards. Speaking at a session on 'accountability in research', the provost of Harvard University admitted to one of us that the administration was concerned about the use of the university's name by companies to push their agenda. We were discussing the case of a small research institution, the Harvard Centre for Risk Analysis, which had published a bibliographic review of the health impacts of compressed natural gas (cng) claiming that the gas emitted more smaller particulates, which were dangerous to human health. The study was funded by the largest diesel truck manufacturer in the us , Navistar International. The contents of the study were also extremely shoddy but by the time it made it to the tables of top policymakers in Delhi, thanks to the country's own diesel lobby, it had become the prestigious Harvard study. Top decision-makers of Delhi went to town discrediting cng on the basis of this diesel industry-sponsored four-sheet "study". The provost admitted that this was indeed a problem and the university was considering ways and means to ensure that the research was promoted in the name of the sponsoring interest group and not the university.

We need to do the same in India and urgently. Only last month, a professor at iit -Delhi released a study, funded by the Indian Oil Corporation, which claimed that the introduction of cng would increase pollution levels in the city. Now the Ford motor company is also entering this lucrative research market and has already hired professors in Harvard to sub-contract researchers in Delhi to study transport and downplay the importance of pollution. The entire exercise is being conducted to promote the good name of the Ford Motor Company, he says. How do we separate the public good from the private interests in these apparently public interest studies?

The key reason why gmo s have received such bad press and public attention in the West is that a handful of multinational corporations monopolise the science of genetic engineering and the global decision making on its use. Consumers are not at all convinced that these companies have adequately factored in human health and the environment concerns over their profit motive. The result is that the profits of the gene companies are being affected. So deep is the concern that even the little scientific evidence that may exist on health and environment issues is not accepted by the public. Public opinion remains even deeply distrustful of government regulators, who have been manipulated by big business time and again. It is clear that genetically engineered crops will get accepted only if there is credible scientific assessment to support them.

Indian industry should learn a lesson from this case. It has worked hard to destroy just about every public regulatory process and institution that exists. Environmental Impact Assessments (eias), for example, are contracted out routinely to consultancy agencies on the condition that they will obtain the clearance from the regulatory agency, not that the assessment will be rigorous and scientific. It is no wonder that local communities and ngo s today discount these documents as company 'folklore' and take recourse to legal actions. At the same time, the director of iit -Delhi, in fact all iit s, and the director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (csir) should set up procedures to regulate their public-funded scientists as they promote greater interactions with industry. Research is often like an iceberg. The public interest can just be the visible tip with the invisible bulk being the private interest.

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