September 21, 1999, San Jose Mercury News

Industry funding fuels
perception of science for sale

Dilemma growing over how to sort science from self-interest

By Kitta MacPherson
Newhouse News Service

THE late-breaking science news is in: Breast implants don't cause disease. One little problem -- an author of the study accepted funding from an implant manufacturer.

Or try this: A batch of studies suggest that global warming is nothing to worry about. But many of these studies are funded by the coal, oil and automotive industries, whose fossil-fuel products are causing the problem, according to most scientists.

How is a non-scientist supposed to sort the science from the self-interest? Guess wrong on global warming and the planet could be in big trouble.

Does the sunscreen being slathered on toddlers really prevent skin cancer? Do herbal supplements deliver? Are fat-free potato chips safe?

The dilemma is growing as industry funds an ever larger piece of the basic research pie -- even at universities, the public's traditional font of objectivity.

"Look, you don't bite the hand that feeds you,'' said David Thomson, a statistician and electrical engineer at Bell Labs who has done pioneering analysis on climate patterns. "Everyone understands that.''

At stake: scientific truth

Through history, scientists have seen themselves as truth-chasers.

They discern patterns. They decipher data. They are supposed to beam in on nature harshly, analytically, and tell us what is happening.

To do this, some scientists run to the ends of Earth, trudging on permafrost to carve out ice cores containing the vestiges of ancient climates, or scaling snake-infested rain-forest trees to scout out tropical flora. They comb the ocean floors and peer out at galaxies dancing near the edge of time.

Others lock themselves in labs, zapping crusty crystals with lasers or peering through microscopes at genetic goop. Still more immerse themselves in abstractions, mathematical equations that are supposed to mimic reality but are really -- they think -- its more nearly perfect representation.

What's changing now is that private industry is financing more of this. Annual research-and-development expenditures in the United States were an estimated $220.6 billion in 1998, of which 65 percent was provided by industry. The federal share first dipped below 50 percent in 1978, and has since slipped further to the current all-time low of 30.2 percent, according to the most recent data compiled by the National
Science Foundation.

Corporate investment in basic research performed at U.S. universities and colleges increased by 20 percent from 1991 to 1997, rising to a total of $1.05 billion in 1997 dollars.

It would be unfair to suggest that all of this is bad. General Electric Co.'s ``house of magic'' was led by the engineering genius Charles Steinmetz, who pioneered practical uses of electricity. The venerable Bell Laboratories produced the transistor, evidence supporting the big-bang theory of the universe and more than a few Nobel Prizes over many decades.

Incentive to mislead

Still, funding always means something. Bonnie Liebman, a nutrition scientist at the watchdog group the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, often sends out warnings to consumers about industry studies that highlight the health benefits of products like salt and eggs. These studies often have no peer review and contradict conclusions reached by agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

"We are constantly dealing with well-funded industries that send out a continual barrage of press releases that exonerate their products from any of the ills that every respected health authority known has concluded about them,'' Liebman said.

Earlier this year, newspapers across the country trumpeted a scientific panel's findings that silicone breast implants break but don't cause illness. Few reported that one member of the four-person panel had a conflict of interest, having accepted an honorarium and thousands of dollars in donations from an implant manufacturer for a conference he was organizing. The federal judge who created the panel dismissed a complaint about the conflict when it was brought to him after the fact.

Most of the reputable scientific and medical journals are taking the "full disclosure'' approach, requiring authors of papers to acknowledge all funding sources, which is a starting point for consumers.

Sometimes those efforts are imperfect. A study that appeared last fall in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that cranberry juice inhibits urinary tract infections, responsible for 7 million doctor visits annually. The Rutgers University scientist who wrote the paper was upfront, when asked by a reporter, about her funding source, Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., the country's largest producer of the fruit.

Prodded by a journalist, an editor at the medical journal apologized for what he called an oversight and promised to place a clarification spelling out the funding source in a future edition.

Some scientists dismiss the suggestion that taking industry money could impede the public's trust in them.

Patrick Michaels, a climatologist and professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia, is one of the nation's leading skeptics of global-warming theories. He has accepted grants from fossil-fuel interests over the course of his career. When he was questioned by a reporter about it, he dismissed her with a wave of his hand: ``I thought you came here to talk about science,'' he said.

 

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