Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

University Research Is Losing Its Independence

By Peter Bowditch

Universities can no longer be relied upon to allow unconventional voices to be heard – unless there’s sponsorship attached.

Universities in the English-speaking world seem to be moving away from the idea of what a university should be and toward institutions that are driven by money and customer demand. The type of problem varies from place to place.

The trend in the UK, for example, is “noplatforming”, where protests are held to prevent people with controversial opinions from speaking at events held on university campuses because exceptions need to be made to the principle of freedom of speech.

In the US it seems to be the infantalising of students in order to protect them from challenging or potentially offensive material being presented in lectures or reading material. In one outstanding case a professor was disciplined because a student in a tertiary-level English class objected to the racism inherent in the word “niggardly” – which means “miserly”.

(Not understanding etymology is not confined to undergraduate students. I saw someone with a PhD in linguistics criticise the use of certain terms because they “denigrate” members of certain racial groups. The word “denigrate” descends from a Latin expression meaning “to call something black”.)

Neither of these things is confined to just one country, and another thing that seems to be everywhere is a form of relativism applied to scientific matters. Universities must be places where ideas can be floated and challenged, but there should be limits.

While I would hope that no real university would do research into the Flat Earth theory or unicorn genetics, there are certainly places that harbour climate change deniers and, just as worrying, those who reject medical science. This last example is a particular worry for those who respect the Australian university system.

I have two pieces of paper on my wall from Macquarie University, where the first school of chiropractic was established outside dedicated chiropractic colleges. (Macquarie tried to close the school and sell it off recently, but it still seems to be operating.)

In 2014 there was consternation when La Trobe University accepted a very large grant to investigate supplements from vitamin manufacturer Swisse (just that company, not any others).

And in 2015 Sydney University accepted a large sum from supplement manufacturer Blackmore’s to endow a chair of “integrated medicine” (the label du jour for “alternative medicine”), but promises have been made that the company will have no involvement in what is researched beyond writing cheques. Skeptics remain skeptical.

The latest institution to come under scrutiny is Western Sydney University (formerly the University of Western Sydney). WSU has long been the host for all sorts of research and teaching in areas of woowoo, such as traditional Chinese medicine and the flaky fringes of nursing and midwifery. There is a centre within the university known as the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (“complementary” being another synonym for “alternative”) which has just announced that a group called the Jacka Foundation of Natural Therapies is to endow a professorial chair. “Since its inception in 2010 the Jacka Foundation’s major focus has been the awarding of grants to support research and development in areas relevant to the naturopathy profession” (www.jackafoundation.org.au/scholarships). This does not inspire confidence in the quality of any subsequent research.

I should point out that I have no objection to private funding of university research. There is simply not enough money available through government bodies like the NHMRC to pay for everything that needs to be done. Also, universities are ideally situated to do independent research because that’s where the researchers and lab workers are.

The key word, however, is “independent”. There are very good reasons to be suspicious of the published findings of in-house research by pharmaceutical companies simply because the research process is not transparent and the process is profit-driven. (Supporters of alternative medicine never tire of reminding us of the Vioxx scandal.) If the research is carried out independently with transparent funding and the sponsors have no control over what is published, then the public should be able to accept the findings with more confidence.

I accept that there’s much we don’t know about the medical properties of plants and other organisms, and research into such areas is perfectly justified. There are at least three plants with possible (or known) pharmacological properties growing in the vacant block next to my house (St John’s Wort, comfrey, hemlock), but I’m not about to start eating them without knowing what they really do and why they do it.

The difference between Big Pharma and the alternative industry is that the pharmaceutical industry does the research before the marketing, while the “complementary” people go the other way: research seems to be done to confirm what is already claimed about things that are already being sold. And that difference is the real worry.

As for research into homeopathy – well I did mention Flat Earth geography and unicorn biology.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (www.skeptics.com.au).