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Corporate science: The good, the bad, and those in between

By Roderick D. Buchanan

The corporate corruption of science is a familiar theme to anyone whose reading stretches beyond celebrity tattle-tale. The well-documented venality of Big Tobacco and Big Pharma have become cautionary fairy tales for modern times. That money can buy researchers, their results and their authority has become well-accepted but worrying truism. Perhaps this is not all bad, for it has truly buried the anachronistic image of the disinterested scientist untouched by vested interests and hard politics. In its place is a wholesale cynicism washing over any number of thorny issues: GM crops, climate change, the etiology of cancer…

A large portion of this cynicism has been generated by posthumous revelations of sponsored advocacy. Part of the reason for this ‘grave desecration’ is tied up in the practicalities of archival access and legal constraints. Nevertheless, the old adage that you should not speak ill of the dead should not apply if you believe at all in science as cumulative enterprise. Understanding past mistakes can help correct them and help avoid them in future, even if it costs a few lofty reputations.

I have spent years researching a case in point, controversial psychologist Hans Jürgen Eysenck, who died in 1997. Eysenck appeared to relish the lime-light, often taking heterodox positions on contentious topics. Probably the best example of this was his persistent denial of the carcinogenic effects of tobacco. Eysenck steadfastly maintained that cigarettes should be given the benefit of the doubt, despite the mounting evidence. However, Eysenck was heavily funded by the American tobacco industry in the 1970s and `80s, only some of which was declared at the time. Litigation-driven archival stores made it possible to investigate just how deep this relationship went. Up to two million pounds were channelled into Eysenck’s coffers in exchange for a range of research initiatives, scientific and popular writings, consultations and expert testimony.

Eysenck cast himself on the wrong side of debate that was all but settled in his lifetime. In hindsight, in appears he landed there for reasons not purely intellectual. These revelations are important not just because they place a red-flag on his research and writings on this issue, they also imply something about the man’s scientific legacy, his work habits and his ethics.

So far, so familiar.

Eysenck worked in an age when mandatory declarations of conflicts of interest were not quite the norm; indeed, his was the kind of behaviour that helped usher such codes in. Even so, roundhouse condemnations should still be tempered with an appreciation of the realities of contemporary science, especially when you consider who he was up against. If Eysenck was the villain of the piece, then the white-hatted hero would have to be Richard Doll. Doll was a knighted pioneer in disease epidemiology, doing more than any other to put the ink on the link between smoking and cancer – the very link Eysenck was apparently paid to dispute. Late in his life and especially since his death in 2005, awkward questions have been raised about Doll’s dealings with industry, with Monsanto, Dow, ICI and British asbestos manufacturers. The extent to which these consultancies were kept secret and whether possible conflicts of interest affected Doll’s views on environmental carcinogens is still being debated. Doll’s friends, such as Richard Peto, have been quick to defend him, as has a recent authorized biography.

To his credit, Doll changed tack dramatically near the end of his life, admitting that he had greatly underestimated environmental factors. In this way Sir Richard may also prove a pivotal figure in death, pointing the way toward a more interventionist public health effort. The postwar compromise between clinical and social medicine made the individual the unit of analysis, poor lifestyles the likely and convenient causes. The anti-smoking campaign was the modal exemplar of this approach. Difficult-to-isolate environmental causes were neglected in comparison. How much the chemical, agriculture and food industries contrived to protect their interests and divert attention from their products depends on your taste for conspiracy theories. But while cancers related to ‘lifestyle errors’ like smoking have decreased in accordance with the effectiveness of the quit message, other cancers, including childhood cancers, seem to be increasing beyond genetic propensities and poor diet. It won’t be enough to tell people to choose the right lifestyles in a toxic world, and it will come to resemble victim-blaming. Much more research-based regulation of what we eat, breathe and are exposed to will surely be needed meet this challenge, as well as turn back the rising tide of obesity and diabetes.

Meanwhile the specter of Doll versus Eysenck highlights the moral ambiguities of the McScience age, as one potentially compromised voice is pitted against another. We should kiss the notion of independence goodbye. No funding source, public or private, amounts to an agenda-less gift. Getting research done always involves meeting patron expectations, however tacit. This still doesn’t make all sponsors equal however. It should still concern us that the corporate reach into science has if anything extended – in spite of and maybe even because of disclosure codes.

By themselves, declarations of interest amount to little more than a perfunctory ritual. While they may serve to head off later embarrassment, they don’t stop naked interference and they don’t provide much of a calculus to weigh up results. For example, the mere disclosure of Eysenck’s cigarette sponsorship might look damning. But one can only get realistic estimate of how much Big Tobacco influenced him by considering his case in context, by considering his interests and history set against those of his patrons.

We should thus seek to optimize the resources we have for this kind of scrutiny, with the science-watch ‘industry’ treated as a more integral part of science itself. This industry has grown up as a loose network of STS academics, advocates and activists, whistle-blowers and bloggers. With its unruly, nutty edges, it still has a kind of dissenting, outsider status. It needs to be cleaned up and brought in from the cold. It’s the only way producers and consumers of McScience can make informed judgments about what’s on offer.

Roderick D. Buchanan was born and educated in Melbourne, Australia. He has taught science and technology studies at Deakin University, Swinburne University of Technology, and Melbourne University. From 2001 to 2004 he was a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the University of Groningen. His previous writing has focussed on the history of clinical psychology, psychiatry and personality testing. He is the author of Playing With Fire: The controversial career of Hans J. Eysenck.

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