Science for sale?

by Donna Chisholm / 10 May, 2016
With scientists now expected to deliver more economic bang for each funding buck, Donna Chisholm asks if corporate funding is putting their integrity, and the direction of our science, at risk.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images


Silencing Science, a new book by former NZ Association of Scientists president Professor Shaun Hendy, explains how science is vulnerable to the influence of politics, power and money. Donna Chisholm exposed these issues in an investigative story for North & South, Science for Sale? (published April 2014) – named science and technology feature of the year at the 2015 Canon Media Awards.

On August 14 last year, 11 days into Fonterra’s botulism crisis, one of the odder theories as to its cause turned up on Fairfax’s Stuff website. It quoted a retired Matamata vet, Frank Rowson, who postulated the contamination scare was not caused by a dirty pipe, but a neurotoxin resulting from herbicides and GE feeds passing through the food chain into milk. And, Rowson hinted darkly, he was sitting on material to embarrass the dairy giant even further.

It was, says then Association of Scientists president Shaun Hendy, flaky stuff. But it was filling a vacuum – the scientists best qualified to comment weren’t talking, he says, because many of them had commercial relationships with Fonterra. Society’s critics and conscience were, on this occasion, conspicuously silent. “While we’re verging on a national crisis, we expect to have scientists explain the science to us,” Hendy says. “It didn’t happen in this case and I think that’s something the country has to think about.

“The public puts $600-$700 million a year into the scientific community and, in this instance, in an emergency, we didn’t have scientists who were prepared to speak out. One of the reasons is that a lot of scientists who had the skills would have had commercial relationships with Fonterra.”

Association of Scientists former president Shaun Hendy.
Association of Scientists former president Shaun Hendy. Photo/Ken Downie


Hendy, a professor and physicist at Auckland University, is referring to the strings, both implicit and explicit, that attach to research funding, whether from the public or private sector.

With a $125 million annual research budget, Fonterra is unsurprisingly our largest private investor in science. However as burgeoning numbers of academics contest a shrinking pool of grant money, and the private sector ramps up its research and development investment seeking greater economic productivity, the culture of science is rapidly changing.

The Prime Minister’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, told North & South the country “wasn’t having a deep think about all the unintended consequences going on in this area” and warns that the changes “may seriously undermine the quality of science, its impact, and ultimately the public’s trust in science”.

He says academics are accustomed to measuring their productivity almost entirely by their publications, but policy makers want impact – and, more often than not, economic impact. While small countries such as New Zealand rely more heavily on public-private partnerships in research funding, those relationships come with real tensions and perceptions of conflicts of interest; there’s also pressure to balance “discovery science” with more practical research that has obvious application to industry. “Greater public-private sector interaction in science puts scientists into more and more complicated positions.”

Medical science has done more than most disciplines to remedy the conflicts, with strict disclosure rules for investigators. Registration of all clinical trials and protocols is also mandatory before publication, so bad results can’t be buried or methods changed to give different outcomes. God knows something had to be done after repeated drug company scandals overseas revealed the extent of the fraud, backhanders and bribery.

In 2012, British academic and science writer Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Pharma told how analysis had repeatedly shown industry-funded drug trials were vastly more likely to produce a positive result for the drug than independent studies. “Sponsors get the answers they want. These are dismal, frightening results.”

But what about research that never goes to clinical trial? What about the reports contracted from expert guns-for-hire? And what about the subtle but unspoken pressures on cash-strapped scientists who don’t come up with the results their sponsors want, but know they will have to milk the same cash cow in the next grant round?

North & South has spent several months investigating those tensions and conflicts in a range of research areas including public health and nutrition, cellphone safety, and alcohol. While we found university academics confident their independence had not been compromised, there were troubling suggestions that some researchers, particularly at Crown Research Institutes or non-university organisations, feel reluctant to speak out for fear of putting future funding at risk or breaching confidentiality agreements.

University professors told us they’re worried the push for researchers to focus on science with business or economic spin-offs might be stymying innovation and academic thinking, and coming at the cost of work that benefits public health.

Professor Boyd Swinburn, a population nutrition expert at Auckland University. Photo/Justin Lambert
Professor Boyd Swinburn, a population nutrition expert at Auckland University. Photo/Justin Lambert


Internationally renowned professor Boyd Swinburn, a population nutrition expert at Auckland University, says he was “riled” to discover last year he was unable to apply for a share of a new $38 million Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment food research grant because the major driver was adding dollar value rather than health value to food. “It was the first time I had come across the business agenda driving research in such a blatant way as if there were no other outcome to consider.”

One of the few prepared to speak publicly about the pressures on researchers is Massey University ecologist and environmental science lecturer Dr Mike Joy. Last year, he questioned the independence of council-commissioned scientists who downplayed the impact of irrigation and intensification on the Tukituki River in Hawke’s Bay. He said the only way such schemes could be made feasible, was to “fiddle with the science” and told a meeting in Waipukurau: “I want you to think about a freshwater scientist working for a regional council that’s put a whole lot of money into an irrigation scheme. Could you be independent? Would you still have your job if you were to say to the boss, ‘This is a bad idea, it’s going to wreck this stream’? If you were working for NIWA, and all your work came from these councils… you’ve got to feed the kids and pay the mortgage. Are you going to say it’s a bad idea?”

Joy told North & South that despite “threats and hassles” from farming interest groups, and the strong relationship between Massey and Fonterra, the university had never tried to stop him speaking out. However that protection didn’t extend to scientists in Crown Research Institutes. “The NIWA guys would agree 100 per cent with what I’m saying, but they’re not allowed to say it.”

Former NIWA chief scientist Don Robertson, who oversaw the changeover to a Crown Research Institute in 1995 and retired in 2010, says while the new environment had been “almost entirely an overwhelmingly good experience”, providing science under contract to private companies had to be approached with caution.

“You have to provide all kinds of cover for yourself and your intellectual property. With some companies where you knew their integrity levels weren’t what you might expect, you had to be on your guard with respect to what companies said they would do in their contracts and what they actually did when you started giving them research reports they didn’t like.”

In one case he recalled, involving a multi­million-dollar contract, the company “got more and more stroppy and demonstrative in trying to bully us into rewriting our reports. We had to tough it out to the point where we would face all kinds of time-wasting flak and pressure and badmouthing and abuse, but we always stuck to our guns and didn’t change the reports. There were a few tense times when payment got delayed or international experts were flown in to challenge and undermine us with a view to not accepting the work and therefore not feeling obliged to pay for it.”

But he says over more than a decade of dealing with hundreds of contracts, that sort of conflict cropped up only a few times.

While overt battles may be rare, the influences of big corporates on where our $1.2 billion research and development budget is spent are subtle but growing: the government’s investment is declining as a percentage of GDP while business input is rising.

Fonterra has in recent years funded two professorships at Massey University, in food materials science and dairy science, and one at Auckland University, in human nutrition. In addition, Massey professor of agribusiness Nicola Shadbolt is a Fonterra director, and former agribusiness professor Jacqueline Rowarth ran unsuccessfully for the board.

Fonterra spends most of its research and development budget in-house. Its research and development head, Dr Jeremy Hill, says long-term research programmes “with a lot of uncertainty”, or clinical trials, were best done externally and it sponsored chairs to build relationships with “pre-eminent individuals” who could help steer research strategies helpful to the company.

Massey vice chancellor Steve Maharey wants to see more and closer relationships between the university and the business sector, saying if academics weren’t “completely independent” they were of no use to corporates anyway. “If we are compromised, it undermines the credibility of the work they’re trying to use.”

One of the few prepared to speak publicly about the pressures on researchers is Massey University ecologist and environmental science lecturer Dr Mike Joy. Photo/David Wiltshire/Massey University
One of the few prepared to speak publicly about the pressures on researchers is Massey University ecologist and environmental science lecturer Dr Mike Joy. Photo/David Wiltshire/Massey University


Mike Joy remembers a rural magazine asking the university for its corporate view of the impact of dairy on freshwater, when he was taking one position and Rowarth another. The journalist was told the differences of opinion were all part of its “critic and conscience” obligations. “I’ve been told as long as I’m factually correct, they’ll support me 100 per cent,” says Joy.

For Fonterra’s Jeremy Hill, it’s not about the money as much as the ethics and behaviour of the parties involved. Yes, the results of adverse contracted research could be suppressed if the company retained the intellectual property rights, but “the benefits of that would be potentially short-lived if someone repeated the work elsewhere. Ultimately, you’ve got to adopt an ethical position. It’s not in our interests to have any work undertaken be anything but robust.”

But if it was, say, the Sugar Industry chair in human nutrition, wouldn’t the public be justifiably dubious of any statements coming out of the professor’s mouth in a debate around obesity? Sally Poppitt, Fonterra’s professor of human nutrition at Auckland University, says she’d have no such suspicion because she stands by the principle of academic independence. She didn’t even raise the issue with Fonterra during her appointment process, she says, because “it’s an absolute given”.

“We work on the principles that within scientific research, the data is not dependent on who the sponsor of the trial is.”

Asked if her attitude wasn’t overly optimistic given the history of the pharmaceutical industry, Poppitt replied: “Auckland University is the biggest and most successful university in New Zealand – it would be really disappointing if we believed relationships worked that way.”

Hill rejected suggestions scientists were reluctant to go on the record over the botulism debacle because of Fonterra’s funding. “The amount Fonterra puts into either the New Zealand system or overseas research is tiny compared to the total level of [research] investment.”

Science Media Centre founding manager Peter Griffin. Photo/Mike White
Science Media Centre founding manager Peter Griffin. Photo/Mike White


The Science Media Centre’s founding manager, Peter Griffin, says the main problem with the botulism debate was that most scientists with any knowledge in the area were co-opted onto one of the three inquiries launched in the wake of the scandal. “One scientist we approached remarked that he looked around the table at one of these inquiries and pretty much every scientist with specialist knowledge in the area was present, so there was no one who could provide independent [public] commentary on it. We come up against this all the time.”

He says notable other examples included the Rena oil spill, mineral exploration, the kiwifruit PSA issue, Pike River “and anything related to genetic modification”.

Botulism aside, one of Fonterra’s biggest public relations risks is the impact of the dairy industry on freshwater quality and the issue of scientific independence is one that economist Gareth Morgan is grappling with as he puts together a “freshwater think tank” to resolve the opposing arguments.

“As we’ve been gathering the panel together, this certainly has come up,” he told North & South. “One scientist has heard the name of another scientist we want to include and the second scientist might be working within the industry so the academic scientist says, ‘They’re compromised.’ Whether it’s a presumption or a reality, I don’t know.

“Definitely there’s a perception among the academics that their colleagues who have moved over to the dark side have chosen the money rather than the bag.”

But he says the industry-funded scientists are “absolutely vital” to the inquiry. “In some respects their knowledge is actually better than the pure academics. The pure academics have an idealism there which says freshwater should be in this [original] state. Well, we left this state 50 years ago, so how relevant is that really?”

Morgan and his staff want to categorise the science in three ways: that which they can all agree on; that which the majority agrees on; and the rest which is disputed.

As he did with climate change in 2009, Morgan will then distil the evidence and come up with a book he hopes will set the matter to rest. He says as long as the methods are transparent and the results open to peer review, sponsored science is far better than no science at all.

Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

TOWERS OF BABEL


In the annals of scientific analysis of research into cellphone safety, 2011 was a particularly big year for the conspiracy theorists. In May, the International Agency for Research on Cancer removed the Karolinska Institute’s Anders Ahlbom from its panel of experts set to evaluate the cancer risks of mobile phones. Ahlbom, it had discovered, was a director of his brother’s Brussels-based consultancy working for the telecom industry, a link Ahlbom had failed to report.

In November the same year, prominent UK epidemiologist Anthony Swerdlow was lead author on a report concluding “the trend in the accumulating evidence is increasingly against the hypothesis that mobile phone use can cause brain tumours in adults”. The footnotes disclosed Swerdlow held shares in telecom companies Cable and Wireless, and his wife held shares in global telecoms company the BT Group.

In New Zealand for many years, those who believe exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields can cause harm have questioned the academic independence of occupational medicine specialist and Auckland University honorary lecturer Dr David Black, a consultant to the telecoms industry, who says it is safe.

In 2010, Black earned a doctor of medicine degree – the equivalent, for practising doctors, of a PhD – and acknowledged within it the “generous support” of Cable and Wireless Ltd. His links to the industry have seen him twice fail to pass conflict of interest rules surrounding membership of ICNIRP (the International Commission on Non-Iodizing Radiation Protection), the body whose epidemiology group was led by Swerdlow.

“If you’re working for a university, that’s okay, but if you’re working directly for the industry you’re not allowed on,” Black told North & South. “I personally don’t see any difference, but they did. I think it’s a mistake, because at a university, if you’re receiving funding through a firewall, you’re still quite strongly influenced.”

And, he says, such restrictions mean potentially valuable input to expert advisory committees is lost. “If people think that someone who is involved in the industry is less independent and less reliable than someone who is not, it tends to select for people who don’t know so much about it. When I was doing a lot of work for the industry, I was very knowledgable because I was so immersed and involved in it.”

Those suspicious of Cable and Wireless’ support for Black’s thesis argue that the industry is helping some­one sympathetic to their cause gain educational credentials which might give them greater heft when giving opinions or expert evidence, either as a consultant or a university academic.

Black says his links with Cable and Wireless began in 1990 when he sat on a committee establishing an Australasian radio-frequency standard. A company representative was also on the group and, nearly a decade later, the London-based company offered financial support – a staged grant of £25,000 – for his thesis. “They didn’t want to see the work in progress or influence it.”

He says he doesn’t know if company management has even read it. Black’s opponents say that the thesis is flawed, contains no footnotes or conclusion as theses require, and was unsupervised. Black acknowledges the thesis was unsupervised, and says the last chapter had been awaiting the results of the international Interphone study on cellphone safety, but these were “dreadfully delayed”. To avoid applying for an extension, “I put in some work I’d done for the Australian government on the effect on homing birds. It’s not that good to be honest and it’s a pity because the thesis is a bit incomplete without that.”

He argues that declarations of potential conflicts, such as those made by Swerdlow on his shares, shouldn’t be the lens that colours the results of their work.

While much has been made of the more overt industry manipulation of scientists and science, Dr Rod Jackson says his experience has shown any influence may be far more subtle. Photo/Justin Lambert
While much has been made of the more overt industry manipulation of scientists and science, Dr Rod Jackson says his experience has shown any influence may be far more subtle. Photo/Justin Lambert

LIQUOR IS QUICKER


For a time in the 1990s Auckland epidemiologist Rod Jackson was at the top of the invitation lists to speak at international meetings on alcohol and disease. He had written around a dozen papers, based on evidence from his own and other studies, saying that light-to- moderate alcohol consumption reduced the risk of heart disease.

In the early 2000s, however, new papers emerged which proved that the design of these trials was flawed, and in a paper in the Lancet in 2005, Jackson admitted he’d got it wrong: any coronary protection from drinking was unlikely to outweigh its known harms.

Almost overnight, the invitations dried up. In the nine years since, he’s had just one. Suddenly, Jackson asked himself, were all those conferences as independent as he thought they were at the time? “I’d believed I had been careful. It was scary.”

While much has been made of the more overt industry manipulation of scientists and science, Jackson says his experience has shown any influence may be far more subtle.

“Researchers, based on their own interpretation of the evidence, their own studies or background, come up with strong opinions totally independently. What the vested interests do is make sure the voice of those scientists with views in their favour are heard.”

Or their work is supported in other ways. In 2011 and 2012, Canterbury University economist and senior lecturer Dr Eric Crampton published reports suggesting the social costs of alcohol abuse were grossly overstated. By the end of last year, he and the university had sewed up a three-year deal by which 20 per cent of his salary is paid by beer industry group, the Brewers Association.

While such links are frowned on by public health experts, the Canadian- trained academic is unrepentant, telling North & South the contract, handled by the university, means he retains complete academic freedom to publish his alcohol policy research findings.

In a December blog justifying his contract, he wrote “Since moving to New Zealand, I’d loved the kind of drinking and brewing environment that’s been enabled by our regulatory and tax structures.”

He says while some academics are opposed to any kind of industry funding, “people underestimate the strings that come with Ministry of Health funding and overestimate the strings that come with industry funding. There are plenty of folks who take gigantic contracts with the ministry or Health Research Council and I expect they have rather less academic freedom than I do and might have graver worries they might not continue to be funded if they didn’t toe the party line.”

Crampton says he suggested the deal to the Brewers, when they asked why he wasn’t doing more research on alcohol policy. He told them the funding environment had become so strict that “anything that is time away from things that directly put students into seats or into top-notch research publications, they get mad about. Every hour I was spending doing that stuff was an hour I wasn’t spending doing things the university valued more.”

While such an arrangement is unusual here, he says in the US and Canada, “easily a third of professors” are in funded chairs. He says even when he wasn’t supported by the industry, he was accused of being funded. “Any time you’re working in that space, the public health guys are going to be going, ‘Blah, blah, he’s funded’ so I didn’t see what harm it could do. Every­thing I do is through the university. If I go and do something stupid, if I skew data or push stuff that’s not in line with good practice or evidence, the university will get mad at me.”

He acknowledges some might regard any findings as tainted by the funders. “They might and I can’t really control it. I expect the haters are gonna hate regardless…”

But, he says, the Brewers would be loath to fund someone who “just made stuff up which supported their views because eventually I’d be shown to be a complete idiot and a fraud and they’d look bad because of it”.

Less sanguine about the deal is Peter Adams, an Auckland University associate professor in the School of Population Health. A specialist in addiction research who has published widely on the ethics of alcohol and gambling proceeds being used to fund research, he regards it as unethical for the university to accept such funding. He says that although Crampton frames the deal as a “normal and understandable relationship”, this disguised the broader intent of a liquor industry lobby group acting strategically to “confuse, divert and disguise” the health challenges with alcohol “as the tobacco industry successfully did for many decades”.

He says such groups traded on the reputation of the university to enhance their own brand and public standing and used the relationships to foster dependency and a reluctance to criticise the industry. “Once you buy into a source and gain from that you’re more likely to do it again and it becomes institutionalised, which is exactly what’s happened in the community around pokie funding.”

With $300-$400 million a year of pokie money now going to community groups, says Adams, the people lining up to support the industry in select committees were the opera societies, sports clubs and Plunket Society.

In 2009, Adams was among those who “outed” the Australian organisation Drinkwise, set up in 2005 with a stated mission of changing Australia’s drinking culture. Although its slogan was “Moderation is always in good taste” and it offered grants to alcohol researchers, six of 10 of its board members were senior members of the alcohol industry; the extent of those links was not declared. “It was a liquor industry front for purchasing science.”

FOOD FOR THOUGHT


While the tobacco and alcohol industry have long been seen as the villains of health research funding, in the face of the obesity epidemic a new pariah is emerging: the food – particularly the sugar – industry.

In January, it was revealed that five out of eight health experts on a British committee advising the government on sugar consumption had received funding from confectionery giants, including Coca-Cola and Mars. “It’s like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank,” an Action on Sugar spokesman told the Daily Mail.

In Australia, Sydney University has launched an investigation into a research paper suggesting Australians were becoming fatter while sugar consumption was dropping. Investigators, including well-known nutritionist Jennie Brand-Miller, admitted “inadvertent errors” in the paper after economist Rory Robertson revealed the flaws, calling the paper a “menace to public health and an academic disgrace”.

He wants the university to examine if it has any conflict of interest because it has a business relationship with the sugar industry. The university charges the food industry to brand particular types of sugar and sugary foods as healthy with its “low glycaemic index” stamp. Brand-Miller developed the glycaemic index and is known in Australia as “GI Jennie”.

Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu, the programme leader for nutrition research at Auckland University’s National Institute for Health Innovation, believes Brand-Miller’s credibility has taken a blow over the paper. She and Professor Boyd Swinburn have often fielded requests from food industry reps, including Coca-Cola, to discuss their planned campaigns, but she refuses to meet them.

One such controversial campaign last year focused on how much exercise was needed to burn off calories. “Rather than Coca-Cola going, ‘We’re part of the problem so therefore we should be changing our products,’ they were just telling individuals to exercise more,” she says. “They wanted to tell my team about their campaign around the time they launched – trying to position us so that when it went live we wouldn’t be going out there blagging them. We don’t want to be seen to be in the pocket of the food industry. Meeting them opens a door for more engagement, someone to build a relationship with.”

Despite having to fund all her salary through research contracts – she doesn’t have a teaching role at the university – Ni Mhurchu says she keeps the food industry “at arm’s length” after her experience with a supermarket chain in the late 2000s. Her research, done with the super­market’s help to access its customers and sales data, showed that removing GST from healthy foods changed buying habits, reducing consumption of less healthy options. The supermarkets then realised her findings “weren’t something the food industry would like”.

“In the end we managed to publish what we set out to publish, but they tied us up in a sense that we weren’t allowed to do anything outside that. The relationship became really tense and they were quite open about the fact they saw us as adversaries.”

Swinburn acknowledges the pressure on researchers desperate for funding. “They get a bit caught because the industry has the money and the researchers don’t and often there’s a joining-up. I’m not saying it isn’t a good thing – generally it’s not a problem. But the problem is if there is a conflict between what is good for the company funding the study and what is good for health.

“If there’s a fundamental conflict in that, bias can enter the process all the way from what question is asked to how it’s set up and analysed.”

In New Zealand, the industry-funded Sugar Advisory Service enlisted Otago associate professor of nutrition Winsome Parnell to its advisory panel. She’s told North & South she’s not on the company’s payroll but sometimes receives a small honorarium to cover costs. “I don’t care what anyone thinks. My conscience is entirely clear.”

In a story on sugar for this magazine in 2012, food companies, including Coca-Cola Amatil, and industry groups referred us to Parnell for expert comment.

Public relations consultant Carrick Graham, who used to work for the tobacco industry and has worked for the NZ Association of Convenience Stores, sees “tobacco-style approaches” in public health research calling for fat taxes and fizzy drink bans. “Of course their research is going to say that. If you’re a researcher, the more you get noise around what you’re saying, the more funding you get.”

He says that public health research “is always directed at further restrictions and more research. I’ve never once seen a public health research paper that doesn’t call for a policy change or more research. They know what side of the toast the butter’s on.

“A public health researcher who came out and said we need to have a sensible debate on tobacco harm reduction, for example, would get blacklisted and that’s the last thing you want if you want to be part of the academic community.”

Last year, Shaun Hendy and the late Sir Paul Callaghan published Get Off the Grass, a book which exhorted the country to double spending on science and innovation in the next decade with a substantial increase in “untargeted, basic research”.

It’s a view markedly at odds with the direction in which the government is sending our scientists.

Hendy’s view is that the commercially driven imperatives of the Crown Research Institutes are impeding the free flow of ideas between organisations, because everyone wants to clip the intellectual property ticket on the way through.

“We’re not exchanging ideas enough. Paul Callaghan’s vision was to break down these barriers. Companies are commercially driven and they should be, but a lot of our companies take a very short-term view of innovation.

“I do worry that the short-term view will spill over into the academic world and we’ll only focus on short-term wins and we’ll stop generating the long-term projects that take decades to come to fruition.”

He says while government depart­ments such as the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research used to be “public good services” to enable inventions, the CRIs today had almost become gate-keepers of ideas. And with nearly half of CRI budgets coming from commercial contracts, that, Hendy reckons, is a worry.

But Anthony Scott, CEO of Science NZ, the body representing our seven Crown Research Institutes, believes that discussions about the split between basic and applied science aren’t always constructive.

“Paul and Shaun have been saying it’s about letting the best brains work in whatever field, but we have to get the balance right and in a number of those areas we have to say, ‘Does New Zealand have the ability to capture the value from that wonderful research?’

“As the Irish chief scientist said a year or two ago, it isn’t about picking winners – you have to choose the races you want to enter,” Scott says. “Too often the cries for more money for basic research come down to ‘I need it because someone, somewhere, sometime will get some benefit from it.’

“I think the government is saying, well actually, the someone should be New Zealand, the somewhere should be areas where New Zealand has a competitive advantage and the sometime should be sooner rather than later.”

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