Recently, allegations against the sugar industry belayed its hand in shaping decades-old nutrition research. The expose seemed to confirm whistleblowers’ worst fear — that industry funding has long tainted the well of scientific knowledge.
Yet industry funding is far from the sole source of bias — agenda-driven federal dollars and the nature of competitive science ensure as much. Although safeguards ensuring transparency exist, excluding private dollars from science would only magnify any modern bias problem.
Tufts University estimates a going rate of $2.5 billion, and several hundred failed experiments and trials, before a successful prescription drug can find its way to the market. As much as the scientific community would hope for that money to simply materialize, some entity must ultimately bear the responsibility of financier.
Today, we think of the federal government’s alphabet soup of science and health agencies as benevolent investors to a perpetually underfunded field. Federal grants comprise 90 percent of some universities’ research budgets, and the public view such efforts to cure cancer and obesity through rose-colored glasses.
In truth, innovation breeds competition, locking scientists and their funding agencies in an arms race to produce flashy new results. Edison’s mantra of discovering 700 ways how not to make a lightbulb doesn’t spark much enthusiasm when papers detailing the “negative results” of a false hypothesis are now published half as often as they were in 1990.
The National Institutes of Health faces pressure to justify its part of the federal budget, and accordingly supports novel research expected to significantly advance the knowledge in a given field. Fewer than 20 percent of NIH grant applications make the cut.
Interestingly, that value is almost equal to the proportion of published studies in psychology, neuroscience and medicine that are replicable. The constant forward momentum pressures scientists to reach for that “Aha!” moment — even when it’s unsupported by the data.
Too often, studies that upset the status quo are faulty for reasons beyond funding influence, but which are still geared toward novelty. Small sample size, flawed methodology, and illogical leaps often plague the most newsworthy scientific literature. These factors are perhaps more dangerous because they’re not as easily identified as a stand-alone funding disclaimer.
Contrary to what our supposedly dispassionate federal agencies would have you believe, federally funded research is often biased by this pressure. Just this year, an NIH grant recipient was found to have intentionally falsified data and images in nine publications. I would wager that readers never came across a scathing expose about a taxpayer-funded conspiracy to push regulations on the back of faulty research.
Transparency safeguards have been implemented since the 1960s Harvard-sugar incident. Every respected journal requires prospective authors to disclose financial conflicts of interest, with many requesting non-financial conflicts as well — former employment, for instance. If a paper (or nine) slip through the cracks, the Office of Research Integrity corrects the damage.
Nonetheless, anti-business activists aspire to paint industry leaders bleating “Pay no attention to the funding behind the curtain!” In an exemplar case of poor self-awareness, this criticism neglects the power of government influence, and ignores the major contributions that private dollars have made to modern science.
For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation, established by history’s favorite corporate villain — shrewd oilman John D. Rockefeller — played an essential role financing the world’s first antibiotic. As penicillin gave way to erythromycin and tetracycline, funding was largely supported by the modern-day “corporate villain,” Big Pharma.
Decades after the antibiotic revolution, drug discovery became far costlier as teams of researchers exhausted more avenues and failed to yield antimicrobials at a profitable rate. By the turn of the century disgruntled financiers had begun investing elsewhere, eager to discover the next big medical advancement.
The current wave of antibiotic resistance can be attributed, in part, to that lack of adequate investment years ago. When industry pulled out, the federal government was wholly unable to supplant the money. As science funding continues to claim an ever-smaller part of the federal budget, it is essential that private donors answer the call where public funding falters.
No amount of industry funding can make a cell bend to the corporate will. Rather than shutting whole entities out of the scientific process, it is far more prudent to ensure that every study, regardless of funding body, exceeds the standard of well-designed science.