Saturday, April 4, 2009

Credible research

Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU, was on campus last week to speak, sponsored by the Penn State Rock Ethics Institute. Nestle is the author of a number of popular books about the politics of food, and an outspoken critic of the influence of the food industry on how and what we eat, and thus, on the health of the American population. She's particularly concerned with obesity in children and the role of advertizing in promoting the consumption of excess calories even in children as young as two. She believes that any money researchers take from the food industry is tainted money. Her point is that it's impossible for a scientist to do unbiased research, however well-intentioned, if the money comes from a funder that stands to gain from the findings. Indeed, it has been found that results are significantly more likely to favor the funder when research is paid for by industry.

The same can and has been said about the pharmaceutical industry and drug research, of course, and, though we don't know the particulars, it has to be equally true of chemistry or rehab or finance or fashion design. But, as we hope our posts about lobbying last week make clear, the problem of potentially tainted research doesn't start and stop with the involvement of money from industry. Research done with public money can be just as indebted to vested interests, its credibility equally as questionable. It can be somewhat different because researchers tend not to feel indebted to the actual source of the money -- the taxpayer -- but research done on the public dollar can be just as likely to confirm the idea or approach the funding agency supports.

Even when money isn't the motivation, there are many reasons that research might not be free from bias -- the rush to publish, the desire to be promoted or get a pay raise, commitment to given results, prior assumptions, unwillingness to be shown wrong. Many prominent journals won't publish negative results and of course journals and the media like to tout if not exaggerate positive findings. There is pressure to make positive findings -- and quickly -- to use to get one's next grant (and salary). This is one reason it is commonly said that one applies for funds to do what's already been done. This makes science very conservative and incremental when careers literally depend on the march of funding, no matter what their source.

Besides the pressure to conform and play it safe, a serious problem is that such bias doesn't necessarily make the science wrong, but it does make it more difficult to know how or where it's most accurate and worthy. And it can stifle innovative, truly creative thinking. Some of the most important results are likely to be negative results, because they can tell us what isn't true or important, and guide us to what is. But that isn't necessarily what sponsors, especially corporate sponsors, want, and it isn't what journals are likely to publish.

So, while it's essential, as Marion Nestle and others consistently point out, to eliminate the taint of vested interest from research, it's impossible to rid research of all possible sources of bias. And the reality is, at least for our current time, that it's only the fringe of those most secure in their jobs etc., who can speak out about the issues (as Nestle said, she has tenure and doesn't need money to do her work, so she can say anything she wants to) -- and they do not have the leverage to change the biases built into our bottom-line, market- and career-driven system.


Jennifer said...

So the prevailing opinion about research scientists is that they are in it for the money and not doing their life's work because of an innate curiosity and need to know. That sounds like people insisting that all doctors or rehab therapists, etc., keep making successive appointments with patients just for the money. I just can't believe that the majority of highly educated people choose a field of interest and invest that much time and energy in learning with their primary motivation being money. I do acknowledge that money can taint, but I don't believe it's all for the money.

Ken Weiss said...

No, we're like any other profession, a mix of motivation. Some see it as engineers, ways to tinker with Nature. Others come into it with childhood fascinations about bugs, evolution, whatever. Most would get their exposure to science from television or from school (including college), where the main or even only thing they see is the science itself. Their motivation would not be venal, though they might ask about job opportunities before committing to graduate school.

The conflicts of interest come in starting, largely, at graduate school and then in subsequent careers, that depend on results, funding, jobs, salaries, and so on. It is hard not to be affected by the real-world pressures, no matter how much one's initial motivation is to understand Nature.

Likewise, the excitement of understanding things never seen or known before doesn't go away, and even the most materialistic scientists, at least those we know, retain a strong component of that.

The problem is the degree to which everyday pressures, that are largely materialistic, affect what one does, the fraction of time one spends on doing science vs raising funds, and the other aspects of human failings that impact daily life.

I would not argue that we are that different from other industries (medicine included). But there are fields that should have a greater degree of objective disinterest than other fields. Science and medicine should be as disinterested as possible--especially at universities where things should be open and free from commercial and other similar constraints. The commercial world is a different story,though not entirely so, as the tainting of medical and food research by commercial pressures shows.

Anne Buchanan said...

Once a scientist is a professor, running a lab, he or she has is then responsible for paying the salaries of the post-docs, students, lab techs, for repairing and replacing equipment and so on, and it's very expensive. Indeed, most professors don't set foot in the lab except to get their coffee -- and since they are so out-of-practice, their post-docs usually prefer it that way. And many, if not most, scientists submit grant applications for every deadline, multiple times a year.

So, the preoccupation with getting and maintaining funding is completely understandable, given that the system is as it is. It's when the very real need to fund a research program begins to depend on exaggeration, stretching the truth, explicitly or implicitly providing the results the funders want, and so on, that, to us, things get problematic.