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Science on sale: I'll take three

Friday, July 18, 2008

cni-not-for-sale-photo.jpg Nowadays, everything seems to be on sale. And I am not talking about the end of the season clearances in stores around us. I'm talking about how if you have enough money you can often buy what ever you want with it -- public support, freedom, education and yes, science.

Here at EWG we work extensively on science for sale issues. Our chromium fraud investigation revealed that safety standards from chromium-6 - the "Erin Brockovich" chemical - had been skewed by a cancer study that was faked by an industry scientist. We revealed the influence of industry on a Harvard professor's suppression of research on fluoride and bone cancer. We blew the whistle on corporate-cozy government contractors in the case of potent chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) and uncovered the major conflict of interest of Sciences International, a consultant that was running the federal safety review of BPA while also working for the chemical industry. As the result of our work, Congress began an investigation of corrupt contracting throughout all regulatory agencies.

But even with EWG's work and the work of other watch dog groups, the situation is still far from being resolved. The question to ask, when thinking about conflict of interest, is who is paying for it and how is that influencing the questions being asked.

BPA is a poster child chemical for funding biases. According to a recent Washington Post article by David Michaels,

"One of the eyebrow-raising statistics about the BPA studies is the stark divergence in results, depending on who funded them. More than 90 percent of the 100-plus government-funded studies performed by independent scientists found health effects from low doses of BPA, while none of the fewer than two dozen chemical-industry-funded studies did.

This striking difference in studies isn't unique to BPA. When a scientist is hired by a firm with a financial interest in the outcome, the likelihood that the result of that study will be favorable to that firm is dramatically increased. This close correlation between the results desired by a study's funders and those reported by the researchers is known in the scientific literature as the "funding effect."

Having a financial stake in the outcome changes the way even the most respected scientists approach their research. Scientists make many decisions about the doses, exposure methods and disease definitions they use in their experiments, and each decision affects the result."

Often, the scientists just plainly manipulate the results. But, according to the Michaels, sometimes close examination of those studies shows that they are comparable in the quality of data and sometimes even better. The puzzle is then, how does that happen?

There are many ways to manipulate the science when the industry is paying the tab--the scientist might not be asking the questions they should be asking; industry funded studies might also be designed to create certain results (and not show some others); as the case with Sciences International and BPA analysis shows, there could be industry presence in choosing the scientific literature that could have big impact on conclusions and so on.

Corporate sponsorship of science should stop once and for all. With the global increases of diseases, public health is not something that should be taken lightly. And there should be no price tag attached to it.

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