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Scientists for sale: The way multinationals 'buy' endorsements

Written By Gopal Krishna on Monday, May 12, 2014 | 11:57 PM

Colonising strategic sectors by setting up seemingly ‘neutral’ institutions or funding existing bodies and co-opting figures to do the bidding of powerful corporations is a well-worn strategy used to achieve cultural hegemony and secure material outcomes.

 While mouthing platitudes about democracy and democratic institutions, this type of corporate colonisation demonstrates a sneering contempt for democracy and by implication for ordinary people.

Take the case of GM food. The majority of the British public who hold a view on genetically modified (GM) crops are against them. Yet the push to get them into the country and onto plates is in full swing. Strategically placed politicians and scientists are conveying the message that GM food is both safe and necessary.

Although such politicians and scientists have links to the GM sector, which highlights serious conflicts of interest, certain news outlets report their views uncritically. And it doesn’t help matters that part of the pro-GM public relations assault on the British public is also being facilitated under the guise of ‘objectivity’ by the Science Media Centre (SMC). As with politicians and scientists who give the impression of being independent, the SMC veneer of independence serves to mask where its real interests lie.

The PRWatch website provides some interesting details about the SMC. It was conceived in 2002 and enjoys close links with the British government. It is now based at the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's largest non-profit foundations. The Trust was founded on the fortune of American-born pharmaceutical magnate Sir Henry Wellcome, whose drug company has since evolved to become GlaxoSmithKline. The Wellcome Trust gives the SMC more than the five percent of annual income at which other institutional funding is capped.

PRWatch goes on to state that the SMC received 34 percent of its nearly 600,000 pounds in funding from corporations and trade groups for the fiscal year that ended March 2013. These figures are based on information provided the SMC’s own website. Its current funders include BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta, three of the world's biggest pesticide and GMO corporations, as well as a number of agrichemical trade groups likeCropLife International.

Given these powerful backers, should we be surprised that the SMC spearheaded attacks on French scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini in 2012 after his research team found serious health problems in rats fed Roundup Ready Monsanto GM corn, as well as in rats fed low doses of the herbicide Roundup itself without the GMO corn? His findings struck at the heart of the GM sector.

According to PRWatch, the SMC fed journalists quotes from other scientists attacking the study. Its director Fiona Fox told Times Higher Education that she was proud that SMC's emphatic thumbs down had largely been acknowledged throughout UK newsrooms. A PR job well done! The publishing journal eventually retracted the study, and a Reuters article on the retraction used two quotes from an SMC ‘expert reaction.’

‘Attack on scientific integrity’

Later, however, over 150 scientists sent a letter to the journal calling the retraction an “attack on scientific integrity.”

According to Connie St Louis, the president of the Association of British Science Writers, since the SMC's opening in 2002, the SMC has cast biased press briefings for unwitting and time-starved journalists. She says that the quality of science reporting and the integrity of information available to the public have both suffered, distorting the ability of the public to make decisions about risk.

The result is a diet of unbalanced cheerleading and the production of science information as entertainment.

Sociologist David Miller, co-founder of Public Interest Investigations/Spinwatch and editor of Powerbase, says the problem is that SMC pretends it's promoting the best science, but in fact it promotes a certain kind of science; those kinds of science that corporations and governments stand by in the area of science policy and want to see developed in terms of markets, like cloning, GMOs and to some extent pharmaceuticals as well. These are areas where there's a huge amount of potential profit to be made. Once it steps from supporting science to supporting science policy, SMC becomes political, even though it pretends not to be.

Another prominent figure, Jack Heinemann from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has noted that various SMCs in different countries do not publish conflicts of interest, listing scientists' public university positions but not their industry ties. For example, an SMC criticism of a peer-reviewed study he published quoted Professor Peter Langridge, a University of Melbourne senior lecturer in food technology and microbiology. It did not note what local newspaper.

 The Press later found out: that his research centre receives significant funding from global GM product developer DuPont, amounting to between A$3 million (NZ$3.66 million) and A$5 million a year.

Heinemann goes on to state that scientists know they have conflicts of interest when they receive large monetary gifts or research contracts from developing technology or have an entrepreneurial stake in technology. He said that if various SMCs can’t find scientists who don't have conflicts of interest, what is their point, apart from being some kind of propaganda channel?

In Britain, through the SMC, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council and strategically placed scientists or officials whose pro-GM comments fly in the face of research findings, the GM sector is attempting to control ‘news’ by attempting to confuse commercial self-interest with scientific fact in the minds of the population and to distort the nature of scientific discourse in the both public and academic realms.

By Colin Todhunter

Science for Sale

Interactions between academia and businesses could affect the future of scientific research

Reviewed by John D. Roberts

Daniel Greenberg is a well-known investigative reporter of science, and his current book deals with bitter and divisive controversies over the role of research universities in societal and commercial arenas. His modus recalls insistent advice given by the Watergate source Deep Throat to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: "Follow the money!"

The money theme is strongly coupled to "relevance," where relevance as used here refers to an important factor in the awarding of funds for scientific or engineering research. The problem with relevance is that it raises the question, relevant to whom? For example, evidence that global climate change is connected with human activity is relevant to many people. Evidence to the contrary is relevant to others. When society finally pushes to do more than hand-wringing about global climate change, billions, perhaps in the long run trillions, of dollars can be made from either outcome.

Needless to say, with financial stakes so high for and against global-climate-change research, money is widely used by dueling participants as a weapon. It's used to advertise, lobby, influence vocal sycophants to preach, and try to draw on highly respected research universities to provide plausible expertise to influence the fray's outcome in one way or the other. So "follow the money" becomes quite relevant in awarding large grants to universities for climate-change research.

Greenberg's book, which is organized into three parts, starts with this sentence in the Introduction, "In all cases, money drives the engine of a university." In part 1, he is more specific: "On money matters, all of these [research] universities are puzzling and contradictory organizations. Virtually all describe themselves as hard-pressed financially, even as they ingest colossal sums from a variety of sources, accumulate huge endowments, and operate on enormous budgets." One can argue that "colossal," "huge," and "enormous" may apply to just a few research universities, but one cannot dismiss them altogether.

University-industry joint research projects are special Greenberg targets because of potential conflicts of interest between traditional university values and commercial interests. As an example, the author tells us, "In 2002 Stanford University launched a Global Climate and Energy Project, priced at $225 million over 10 years. ExxonMobil, a declared disbeliever in global climate change and generous angel for right-wing think tanks, was chief sponsor and donor of up to $100 million for the project." Other contributors were General Electric, Toyota, and Schlumberger, all of which had some interest in the outcome, but not necessarily in the same way as ExxonMobil, which elicited a comment at the time that the petroleum company was trying to "greenwash its environmental reputation" for a sum about equivalent "to its paper-clip budget."

Of course, Stanford offered assurances "that their project would respect traditional scientific and academic values," and indeed, if there have been difficulties in the ensuing six years, they are not reported by the author. Still, constitutionally suspicious readers will worry that the amount of money involved could lead to trouble when an extension is negotiated if ExxonMobil should become displeased with the project achievements. A similar arrangement for climate-change research was reported by C&EN in 2007 between the University of California, Berkeley, and British Petroleum for $500 million, which seems to mandate that a contingent of BP personnel be stationed on campus. A further Berkeley-Dow research agreement was more recently reported in C&EN. Both agreements have received considerable criticism from Berkeley faculty and others as being inappropriate to the university's basic educational mission.

It should not be assumed that such university-industry arrangements are suddenly new or unique. In California Institute of Technology's early days (1925-35), a building was built and important research was done for Southern California Edison Co. through a collaboration of Caltech's electrical engineers and Edison on high-voltage power transmission lines. Starting in 1926, through the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory led by famed aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán, Caltech worked with aircraft companies using an industry-funded wind tunnel on campus, with great benefit to the participants. In the 1930s, Caltech physicists collaborated with the medical profession on the use of high-energy radiation to treat cancers.

Around 1980, Caltech's Carver Mead created an industry consortium with leading electronics companies to research architectures for large-scale arrays of integrated silicon transistors. This project had a difficult gestation associated with intellectual property rights until Mead got the participating companies to finesse the issue. Unlike with other such collaborations, Mead decided when enough was enough and moved on to other things. If ethical concerns were voiced at that time or later about these projects at Caltech, they were minor enough, or so far in the past, as to not be reported by Greenberg.

Greenberg gives excellent attention to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Bayh-Dole came about because of legal ambiguity concerning the ownership of patents created in universities using federal research support from agencies with their own policies respecting patent ownership. To solve this problem, Bayh-Dole was passed and is still in effect.

Many readers may be unaware of the specifics of this almost 30-year-old act, so what is involved? The author starts with an excerpt from the act: "It is the policy and objective of the Congress to use the patent system to promote the utilization of inventions arising from federally supported research or development ... [and] ... to promote collaboration between commercial concerns and nonprofit organizations, including universities."

Greenberg then says: "At that pace of growth and financial level ... [billions per year] ... science spending became conspicuous and politically interesting. Scientific inquiry as a manifestation of the human spirit is an inspiring notion, but politicians wanted tangible results, not just arcane research papers."

The act gives universities ownership of patents generated by federal support but allows the government royalty-free rights to use of the patents. At the same time, the scientist(s) whose work created the patents could arrange with their universities to start spin-off companies and enrich themselves, if successful, by either selling out to a larger company or, in the style of Microsoft and Google, growing their companies to extreme value.

Bayh-Dole mandates that patents generated with government support be offered to commercial interests. Just how strongly this and other provisions of the act are enforced is uncertain, but it is clear that, if unheeded, serious legal complications could result. One outcome has been the growth of technology-transfer offices in almost every university with a research program in science and/or engineering.

Greenberg is vitriolic over the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) for overblowing the success of technology transfer as mandated by the Bayh-Dole Act. Greenberg says sarcastically, "In AUTM's version of the story, the Bayh-Dole Act is an unalloyed success, undeserving of the reservations and criticisms by theory-blinkered economists and antediluvian purists ... nostalgically on a long-ago gentlemanly era of science."

Whether or not such sarcasm is warranted, it is a fact that relatively few technology-transfer offices produce large returns, and the patent, legal, and other expenses of these offices can minimize or outweigh returns. Although early on AUTM emphasized the financial gains to be achieved in technology transfer, it and the universities are now converted to extolling the broad societal gains rather than desired financial outcomes. Nonetheless, the author reports in detail on Washington University in St. Louis and Georgia Institute of Technology as prime examples of institutions that have thoroughly embraced the new reality of tech transfers and that profit financially from them.

As for "follow the money," Greenberg describes situations where ethical concerns, conflicts of interest, legal battles, unauthorized or authorized advertising statements implying university endorsement for particular uses of licensed patents, and the like have tarnished great institutions or affected involved faculty. Several cases detailed by the author will be found by the interested reader to include such examples as Novartis/Syngenta with Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University and a skin care product, and large consulting contracts for senior NIH personnel with pharmaceutical companies.

Part 2 of Greenberg's book takes a different tack in which 70 pages of interesting material, well worth reading, have been gleaned from six veterans of the technology-transfer revolution. Most of the interviews are two or more years old, and minds may not be the same today. Included are bitter remarks by chemistry professor Robert Holton of Florida State University on dealing with pharmaceutical companies with regard to Taxol; a different experience with professor Robert M. Dickson of Georgia Tech on imaging techniques, with a surprise ending to an open conversation; professor William S. Wold with conflict of interest in biomedical research at Saint Louis University; Timothy Mulcahy, then of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on internal university relations associated with tech-transfer activities; and a conversation with Drummond Rennie, who has been connected with the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, with deep concerns for possible bias in reporting on tests of the efficacies of drugs, where the authors represent institutions or others who have financial interests in those tests.

The final part of the book consists of two essays: "What's Right and Wrong, and How To Make It Better" and a tasteless parable of the exploits of "Grant Swinger." The first essay confronts scientific fraud, which embarrasses the scientific community even though-considering the yearly volume of published papers—high—profile cases, mostly driven by failures to reproduce important experimental results, are relatively few. The level to which small fudges occur in published data can hardly be expected to be known. However, this essay deals mainly with "wrongs," which range over topics already discussed or alluded to. Substantial criticism is also directed toward the unwillingness of the University of Pennsylvania to reveal its financial agreements with industrial sponsors, which makes it difficult to "follow the money."

Justification for such practices is easily constructed, but is this the proper stance for either public or private universities to take? It is now mandatory for many journals to include footnotes with information about conflicts of interest with regard to the subject matter of submitted papers, but Greenberg notes a trend to ignore regulations about conflicts of interest. He reports that in a study of 3,200 scientists, many said they had changed details of their papers as a result of persuasion from a funding source.

Among corrective measures for conflicts of interest, one procedure adaptable from information technology is "open source" collaborations through which intellectual property will be free for academic and commercial uses. In such arrangements, the universities do not own patents and avoid many problems. To extend open source to pharmaceutical research is a different matter, but Greenberg suggests that changes in the patent system itself could have many advantages. Other measures could include the aforementioned need for transparency of agreements between industry and universities, tightened internal scrutiny by universities of their own research operations, and continued efforts of journal editors to stem the tide of deceit in research publications.

This reviewer was disappointed with part 1, which was highly critical of the compensation of university presidents, even though their levels of compensation are hardly commensurate with upper-level industrial management. One should expect that university presidents are likely to have more workhours and a greater variety of responsibilities than company CEOs. Universities and their biology departments are also strongly criticized for not being able to provide tenure-track positions until postdoctoral fellows reach their late 30s or early 40s. But the author fails to recognize that biology and other sciences are victims of their own success. Success here means wonderful science to work on and capable postdoctoral fellows, but they are too many to be easily assimilated by the number and sizes of existing academic departments and facilities. Yet in other places in the book, the author sharply criticizes universities for pushing to keep expanding.

The book is clearly an interesting read, even if it may raise temperatures under the collars of many company personnel and the faculty and university administrators with high stakes in technology transfers.

John D. Roberts is Institute Professor of Chemistry emeritus at California Institute of Technology.
 C & EN (Chemical & Engineering News) March 24, 2008, Volume 86, Number 12, pp. 70-72

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