In science as in politics, most people agree that transparency is essential. Top journals now require authors to disclose their funding sources so that readers can judge the possibility of bias, and the British Medical Journal recently required authors to disclose their data as well so that experts can run independent analyses of the results. But as transparency becomes the standard, many academics are resisting the trend without pushback from their universities.
After researcher Wei-Hock Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics was caught taking money from fossil fuel companies while claiming that climate change is not happening, the Smithsonian Institution revised its disclosure rules this April. Days later, Soon received $65,000 from Donors Trust, an organization that funnels anonymous contributions to conservative causes. According to the Guardian newspaper, Donors Trust has dispensed nearly $120 million to more than 100 groups casting doubt on climate science. Harvard-Smithsonian declined to explain why Soon received the money, and said that simply acknowledging his ties to Donors Trust allows Soon to meet ethical standards.
It's not hard to find examples of scientists accepting grants from sources that have a financial stake in their field of study — while failing to make clear the nature of the relationship. In 2014, Coca-Cola donated more than $1 million to the University of Colorado School of Medicine to create the Global Energy Balance Network. Initially, involved parties claimed the researchers would work independently of the company. Yet as the university's internal emails later revealed, Coca-Cola had direct influence on the group's missions and activities, forcing Coke's chief executive to admit that “there was not a sufficient level of transparency with regard to the company's involvement with the Global Energy Balance Network.”
Further complaints led the university to return $1 million to Coca-Cola, and the Global Energy Balance Network later shut down. No loss there: Public health experts accused the group of “scientific nonsense” designed to deflect attention from the role sugary drinks play in the obesity epidemic.
One name that often comes up in these transparency scandals is the agrochemical company Monsanto. Chicago public radio recently ran a story on the University of Illinois, where professor Bruce Chassy helped Monsanto route gifts for him through a university's foundation. Chassy then accessed this money to pay expenses for biotechnology outreach to scientists, policymakers and the public, but never disclosed Monsanto's involvement.
And last year, the New York Times revealed that Monsanto had enlisted academics in a public relations campaign against tightening regulations on genetically modified organism crops. One researcher at the University of Florida, Kevin Folta, received $25,000 from Monsanto to educate voters and fellow scientists about GMOs. In his proposal, Folta explained how Monsanto should fund the project so that “it is not in a ‘conflict-of-interest' account” and would not have to be publicly reported.
Disclosure matters because when a special interest sponsors research, that research is likely to produce results in favor of the sponsor. This is not an opinion but a scientific conclusion based on studies of published research on drugs and devices, tobacco and chemicals. For instance, in 2006, a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry examined every publicly available trial funded by the pharmaceutical industry for five antipsychotic drugs. The paper found that nine out of 10 published studies concluded that the best drug was the one sold by the company funding the trial.
Back in 2007, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee began a multiyear investigation into the ties between the pharmaceutical industry and academic researchers. The committee found that companies were trying to influence doctors by paying bonuses, providing free meals and trips, sponsoring their research and supporting their professional societies. In response, the Senate passed the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, which requires companies to report money and gifts they give to physicians. The federal government has now reported that, in 2014, companies paid $6.49 billion to more than 600,000 doctors and 1,100 teaching hospitals, for meals and gifts, consulting fees, research support, and honorariums to promote drugs.
Those numbers may sound alarming, but at least we know the scope of the problem — and that's not the case outside of medicine.
As public funding for research falls and more academics have trouble obtaining government grants, they will turn increasingly to the private sector. An obvious remedy is to extend a law like the Physician Payments Sunshine Act to other areas of science, requiring all industries to report when they fund academics. In fact, a leading scholar has suggested that failing to disclose funding should be considered research misconduct. But disclosure is only a first step.
Universities need to put the public interest first and exclude some academic-corporate relationships. The University of California tightened funding standards in 2007, requiring further scrutiny for grants paid for by tobacco companies. Since we now have evidence suggesting that fossil fuel companies create disinformation on climate change and that the pharmaceutical and medical device industries create disinformation in medicine, perhaps similar restrictions should be considered on their funding.
Disclosure and restrictions do not harm academic freedom. These policies still allow scientists to pursue research, while ensuring that public health is not put at risk in service of corporate profit.
Paul D. Thacker is a journalist and writer living in Spain. Curt Furberg is a retired professor of public health sciences at Wake Forest School of Medicine.