Special Interests Undermine Objectivity of Scientific Research

Originally posted: 2002-01-08
Disclaimer  The information presented here is for informative and educational purposes only and is not intended as curative or prescriptive advice.

Objective scientific research, often used as the basis for policy decisions, is increasingly under attack by vested interests attempting to control the outcome or impact of research, reports the January issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
The peer-reviewed article, Attack s on Science: The Risks to Evidence-Based Research,  illustrates the real threats to objective scientific pursuits and the impact on society through a variety of case studies. The paper describes how special-interest groups have influenced policies related to needle exchange programs for the prevention of HIV, ergonomics and mammograms for breast cancer screening.
This trend of meddling with science to achieve predetermined outcomes has serious implications for researchers at academic institutions and government agencies as well as for the public at large? said Dr. Linda Rosenstock, principal author and dean of the UCLA School of Public Health.  We would like to think that the science used to make decisions that affect all of our lives is pure unfortunately, that is increasingly not the case?

Although growing more sophisticated and complex, attacks on science are not new. To save his life, Galileo was forced to publicly renounce his belief that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. Today, a variety of tactics including economic manipulation, delay, hidden identities and harassment are used to undermine sound science to achieve a desired end.

Examples include:

A National Cancer Institute consensus panel concluded that the science was inadequate to support mammography for routine screening for breast cancer in women aged 40 to 49 years. Yet, in response to external pressure from a variety of vested interest groups with financial and emotional commitments to screening, the science was revisited and repackaged, resulting in the recommendation that women in their 40s be screened every one to two years.

Since 1995 the heavily lobbied Congress proposed or passed ergonomics riders to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration appropriations, prohibiting or delaying work on the development of an ergonomics standard. Congress also required that the National Academy of Sciences twice validate an ergonomics study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, providing enough of a delay for the Bush administration to withdraw the just finalized ergonomics standard promulgated in the last weeks of the Clinton administration.

Despite clear evidence that needle exchange programs reduce cases of HIV and do not increase drug use, emotional and ideological vested interests influenced a 1998 White House decision not to fund needle exchange programs.

The authors note that between 1965 and 1995 the proportion of federal funding of health research and development dropped by almost half, to 34 percent, while industry's financial support increased more than two-fold to 52 percent of the total $35.8 billion expended. Moreover, nearly 12 percent ($1.5 billion) of research funds to academic institutions now come from the corporate sector.

There are many types of vested interests "financial, emotional, ideological or political" in addition to corporate interests. But corporations and the significant economic resources they can use to influence policy outcomes have been the most thoroughly documented.

The authors suggest that to ensure the appropriate use of scientific evidence and the protection of the scientists who provide it, institutions and individuals must give deferential response to honest scientific challenges versus those from evident vested interests, build and diversify partnerships, assure the transparency of funding sources, agree on the rules for publications, and distinguish the point where science ends and policy begins.

The UCLA School of Public Health is dedicated to enhancing the public's health by conducting innovative research, training future leaders and health professionals, translating research into policy and practice, and serving local, national and international communities.

Prior to becoming dean of the UCLA School of Public Health, Rosenstock was director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Washington, D.C., from 1994 to 2000.

Source:  A newsletter for UC friends and advocates, January 08, 2002.   UCLA observation