Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

When industry-sponsored research is on the nose

Universities, journals and academics are increasingly concerned about the attempts of some industries to distort the science. lipik/Shutterstock

A tin pot dictator plunders billions from his blighted nation’s treasury. Sensing he’ll soon be exiled, amid public relations fanfare, he offers ill-gotten millions to a local university for a new school of community development studies.

A pornographer makes millions from films employing, on miserable wages, illiterate men and women from slums and villages of Asian nations. Now the subject of international vilification, he offers a fraction of his riches to his alma mater for a chair in erotic literature.

An unrepentant Nazi amassed fabulous wealth by selling the possessions of concentration camp victims. Grateful to the country that provided him refuge from judgment at Nuremberg, he expresses appreciation on his death bed by donating his fortune to the nation’s leading campus.

An international tobacco company controls more than 15% of the global market, with its efforts contributing to for more than 600,000 deaths worldwide annually. Investigative reports in leading newspapers cite internal company memos about supplying tobacco smugglers and collusive price fixing. Meanwhile, the company promises millions of pounds to create an institute of business ethics, where students may learn of the “social and environmental responsibilities of multinational companies”.

Surely, no academic institution would risk international criticism by accepting one of the objectionable schemes outlined here. Yet that is precisely what happened in 2000. For the sobering sum of £3.8m, British American Tobacco (BAT) announced it would fund an International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility at Britain’s Nottingham University.

Two things should immediately be clear here. First, in today’s climate a university not hungry for money is an oxymoron. Second, few universities would not draw a line somewhere about the appropriateness of taking money from disreputable sources.

In medicine, the debate about the ethics of the cash register arises most often over drug company money. Here, the research evidence is clear: those who take pharmaceutical research money tend to not bite the hand that feeds them.

A 1998 New England Journal of Medicine study reported that 23 of 24 authors (96%) defending the safety of calcium channel antagonists had financial ties with manufacturers of these drugs. This compares with 11 of 30 (37%) who were critical of their use.

The University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre Professor Lisa Bero is perhaps the world’s leading authority on competing interests in science. Bero and others’ 2012 Cochrane Collaboration review investigated the association between pharmaceutical industry funding and research conclusions favourable to the companies funding the research.

Bero’s paper with Jenny White on corporate manipulation of research across five different industries (tobacco, pharmaceuticals, lead, vinyl chloride and silica) is another classic paper in the field.

This week, two editors of a research journal on cancer asked my advice on whether they should adopt a policy increasingly being implemented by leading journals including PLoS Medicine, PLoS Biology and PLoS One and Tobacco Control, the journal with the highest impact factor in the substance abuse field.

These journals refuse to consider papers for publication which are authored by anyone with tobacco industry financial ties. Their reasoning? As the editors at PLoS put it:

We remain concerned about the industry’s long-standing attempts to distort the science of and deflect attention away from the harmful effects of smoking.

That the tobacco industry has behaved disreputably – denying the harms of its products, campaigning against smoking bans, marketing to young people, and hiring public relations firms, consultants, and front groups to enhance the public credibility of their work – is well documented.

There is no reason to believe that these direct assaults on human health will not continue, and we do not wish to provide a forum for companies’ attempts to manipulate the science on tobacco’s harms.

As PLoS journals charge authors a fee to publish, they also did not want to be accepting money obtained from the sale of tobacco and the deaths involved in those sales.

Tobacco-funded research and the conduct of the industry which oversees it has arguably the worst of all reputations. This explains why that industry is unique among all others in being barred from funding research and scholarships at many universities. My own institution – the University of Sydney – was one of the first to do this in 1982.

Bero’s contributions have recently been supplemented by Nicholas Freudeberg’s Lethal but legal (2014) and a book just published by the University of Auckland’s Centre for Addiction researc Peter Adams, Moral Jeopardy: Risks of accepting money from the Alcohol, tobacco and gambling industries (Cambridge University Press 2016)*.

Adams sets out with enormous erudition and many examples, the conduct of the three industries he focuses on. He describes risks to reputations, governance, scientific neutrality, relationships and even to democracy when the corrupting influence of money from industries whose commercial well-being depends on successfully resisting any policies, laws and regulations that threaten their profitability inhibits those developments.

The main focus of his book is the ethical and moral questions which arise for health-care providers, researchers, universities, journals, and communities when such engagement occurs. The book has extensive sections elaborating on inventories of questions that all organisations contemplating accepting funding from these industries should ask themselves.

All universities encourage their staff to engage with industry.

But academics lamenting the decline of government funding for universities have often mocked industry-sponsored chairs. I recall one in “structural clay brickwork” was mercilessly pilloried. Why? What exactly is the ethical problem with advancing the quality of bricks? Or of improving steel through Wollongong’s BHP funded chair?

The biggest losers in the inexorable corporatisation of university research are those fields where profitable commodities, patents or large workforces don’t exist. Classics, philosophy, cultural studies, fine arts, social work and branches of medicine such as anatomy and public health are unlikely to make money for sponsors. They will sink further into penury if affirmative public funding policies do not urgently recognise their importance.

* Cambridge University Press is selling this at $A240. The Book Depository has it at $A127.05 with free delivery.