Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Don’t Bite the Hand that Funds

By Guy Nolch

Corporate interests have a heavy hand in how research is designed, conducted and reported.

In February 2017, the American Association for the Advancement of Science staged the launch of the Brussels Declaration (https://goo.gl/Ss6Mp5), which Nature described as a “20-point blueprint for a set of ethics and principles to inform work at the boundaries of science, society and policy” (https://goo.gl/Jz9VMK).

However, an investigation published in Tobacco Control (https://goo.gl/caZBRN) has found that the Declaration’s consultative process was infiltrated by corporate interests, including the alcohol industry and the “substantial presence of representatives from the tobacco industry”. The study points out: “The Brussels Declaration argues for the need to protect science from distortion by vested interests. Yet it appears to be a vehicle for advancing the vested interests of certain corporate sectors.” As a result, the 20-point plan “fails to address the need for safeguards to protect the integrity of science or policy from corporate interests”.

Three studies co-authored by University of Sydney researchers have shed further light on the influence of corporate funding on research. An analysis in The BMJ of 200 trials of vaccines, drugs and devices published in high-impact medical journals concluded that funders are usually involved in every step of the trial, including study design, conduct and reporting (https://goo.gl/88BSWq). While academic authors were involved in 99% of trial reporting, they did so after relinquishing control of the study design (36%) and data analysis (40%).

Despite this, industry involvement was downplayed or even omitted. “We quickly discovered that trial publications often lacked basic information about who conducted essential parts of the trial,” an accompanying editorial explained (https://goo.gl/5eJyMr). “The role of the funder was often described in vague terms and... in some cases, what was described as an independent steering committee in fact involved employees of the industry funder.” Furthermore, academics “soon discovered that they had limited freedom. They found that the funder ran every research meeting and essentially had deciding power.”

A second study in the American Journal of Public Health (https://goo.gl/SyVrLD) examined the strategies used by the medical, food, tobacco, alcohol, sugar and mining industries to reshape entire fields of research. While it’s not surprising that research was skewed towards commercial outcomes, the study pointed out: “Corporate interests can drive research agendas away from questions that are the most relevant for public health”.

For example, a third paper in Public Health Nutrition (https://goo.gl/ZoZYHf) pointed to “Coca-Cola’s attempt to shift attention from the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in obesity to the role of sedentary behaviour”. With public health experts advocating a sugar tax, the researchers reported: “Publications resulting from Coca-Cola- and Mars-sponsored research appear to skew the evidence towards solutions that favour industry interests”.

A less obvious tactic was the discovery that 10.8% of publications focused on research integrity and methods. The Sydney authors explain: “Shaping the debate around scientific methods can be another strategy that corporations use for their benefit to raise doubts about the methods used in non-industry sponsored research”.

Academic authors surveyed in The BMJ study described their industry collaborations as “beneficial” despite the loss of academic freedom. They’re hardly going to bite the hand that funds. However, too much is at stake to leave research that informs clinical and public health decisions open to manipulation by allowing vested interests to dictate the research agenda and then analyse the data to fit predetermined outcomes.

Academics may never have the power to push back against their corporate funders, so the onus is on journals to ensure better disclosure of the footprint of commercial interests in each step of research design, conduct, analysis and reporting.


Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.