Wednesday, June 22, 2005

"Which side are you on?"

Lila Guterman writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education on public health topics. Her story on The Lancet epidemiological study of civilian casualties in Iraq was superb. Now she has another timely article on the vexing question of corporate influence on research in occupational and environmental health. As you would expect, it is a nuanced and balanced treatment, quoting academics on both sides of the fence regarding some ethical issues that arise when researchers work for industries with a stake in the outcome of their research. [Disclaimer: the Reveres know almost everyone quoted in this article (there are a few exceptions) and our views may be influenced by that. Another disclaimer: the Reveres also have been involved in numerous court and regulatory proceedings on the side of plaintiffs, consumers or the public interest, so you would be wise to take this into account.]

Several questions are raised by Guterman's article, among them the extent to which researchers working with corporate sponsorship can be truly independent. It has not been a hot topic in academic circles:
"There's not been a lot of debate," says Arthur L. Frank, a professor of public health and chair of the department of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University. "Most academics live in their ivory towers and do their own work: 'You leave me alone, I'll leave you alone.' It takes a certain amount of guts to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes."
Debate or not, the Bush administration's blatant interference with independent scientific advisory committees and crude manipulation of science policy has increased sensitivity to the problem. Federal research funds for environmental and occupational health are miniscule and getting even smaller when compared to other biomedical research areas, which together with fainthearted federal scrutiny of corporate health and safety has made researchers more dependent upon industry for access to data. As scientists find themselves more and more entangled with industry, they also become drawn into adversarial proceedings, with scientists facing off over multimillion dollar regulatory rules or tort claims.

New rules of scientific evidence in the wake of the Supreme Court's Daubert decision have compounded the problem. That case required federal trial judges to make a determination on the relevance and reliability of scientific evidence before allowing a jury to hear it. Industry now routinely files legal challenges to plaintiff's expert witnesses and the legal form of these challenges assert the opposing expert's testimony is neither relevant or reliable. This requires the support of other academics to say that their opposing colleagues do not use accepted or proper scientific methods, since mere differences of opinion about scientific results are not sufficient to win a Daubert challenge. Thus industry witnesses must show the other side's science is irremediably flawed and unacceptable (plaintiffs don't usually raise Daubert challenges because they are too expensive). It is easy to see hard feelings might result.
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."


Daniel T. Teitelbaum, a doctor in Denver who specializes in medical toxicology and occupational epidemiology, says: "Industry doesn't give you money to do research. Industry gives you money to do research that favors them."
Guterman quotes Kenneth Rothman, one of the world's most prominent epidemiologists, the author of an authoritative text and who frequently has testified for industry: "You're not biased if you're correct." Again a disclaimer: I know Rothman and respect him, although our politics and sympathies are very different. I wouldn't work for many of the companies he has willingly collaborated with, but at the same time I don't consider him a corporate whore. In my opinion he is intellectually honest and technically flawless, dissenting opinions of colleagues whose politics are close to mine, notwithstanding. However there is also a substantial cadre of scientists, some of them with academic standing, who are willing to say anything in the service of their corporate consulting clients and they are joined by a virtual army of industry-pandering consulting companies whose science is almost as bad as their ethics (or vice versa).

But 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. We have posted here previously about how this works in the pharmaceutical industry (here and here). We have also noted the tactic of "manufactured uncertainty", a theme that comes up frequently from those Guterman interviewed:
Aside from the obvious pressures that industry exerts over research, it can influence academic scientists in subtler ways. For example, when companies cast doubt on academic studies, they often force university researchers into long and draining debates that lead to years of additional work, tying up proposed regulations or court cases in endless debates about the validity of the science.


Researchers feel forced to expand studies or repeat their work after such attacks, says David Ozonoff, a professor of environmental health at Boston University, "to dispel the doubt that industry has created."
Ozonoff could have added that industry can also create entire research agendas by constructing hypotheses that favor their position (e.g., that some chemicals which cause cancer in animals can't do so in humans because humans lack the same mechanism), forcing others to do the experiments that show it isn't the case for that chemical. The Chemical Industry Institute of Technology has made a particular specialty of doing this and it has sucked up the energies of many independent scientists who must refute the nice "scientific" stories they tell.

But 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?"