View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

Scientific research done by companies – please share your thoughts!

5 Comments

My last post was about the differences between businesses and charities, now I want to consider businesses and scientific literature.

Peer-reviewed research is my main source of reliable evidence, but I am always uneasy if I use research done by companies. Is this logical? It has been vetted for publication in the same way as work done by universities – it’s not as if I’m reading spin on a company’s website.

I am not in any way wanting to imply that all data produced by companies is fabrication. I’m more asking questions such as would they publish if the results weren’t what they wanted? This would lead to a bias in the experiments which were published. Did they choose to do the work in a way that was likely to favour the result they wanted? And it’s not just the experiments, it’s the way they are written up, how they are interpreted in the case of other results.

I was particularly thinking about this today because I was at a conference about bees and pesticides, and some scientists from industry were getting a hard time. But I was also chatting to people from universities who were industry funded. It is frustrating for them if their work is mistrusted for this reason – they know that their funding hasn’t changed the way they do research.

There are some excellent scientists working in industry, many of whom have spent part of their careers in academia. And whatever we might say about the lengths that people at the top might go to in the name of profit, the industry scientists I know at my level are honest and motivated by good science. But can there still be biases?

I have just over a week left of my twenties, which is hard to get my head around but is cause for celebration. I have chosen to celebrate with a saving the world party. This is basically a load of my friends and family sharing their thoughts on issues from conservation to the criminal justice system and reducing re-offending (don’t worry, there will be cake and alcohol to follow, we’re allowed to have fun). A few people are doing little talks, and I want mine to be a discussion about exactly this issue, so please share your thoughts and links so I can be better informed for my discussion. Thank you very much.

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Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website: http://rebeccanesbit.com/

5 thoughts on “Scientific research done by companies – please share your thoughts!

  1. You have raised some important issues in this interesting post. The bees have become a very emotive topic and, although I don’t work on bees, I can appreciate the sensitivity of academic bee scientists who find their peer-reviewed work shot down in flames by industry spokespersons that claim knowledge but have not had to subject it to the same scrutiny. This is also why academics who take industry money in the bee area are badly treated especially by some environmentalists. It’s not going to settle down any time soon as long as positions on neonicotinoids are so entrenched and opposed.

    I worked for many years in academic pharmacology and had extensive collaborations with industry which not only helped me employ staff but were generally enriching intellectually. We never worked “near the market place” so there were no constraints on publishing. Even in this area though the issue of publication bias in drug research has been brought out clearly in Ben Goldacre’s book, Bad Pharma.

    And enjoy your party!

  2. Thank you very much for your thoughts Philip. It is interesting that I often end up drawing parallels with the pharmaceutical industry, where debates may be more advanced than they are elsewhere.

    I saw this paper discussing whether journals should stop publishing research funded by the drug industry (which didn’t seem to me to be the way to deal with this – it’s actually more publication not less we want) http://www.bmj.com/content/348/bmj.g171

    I wonder whether we need an All Trials campaign (ensuring all clinical trials are registered so that companies can’t just publish what suits them) for agriculture? http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/alltrials.html

  3. Hi Rebecca!
    Happy Birthday! I’ve shared your link and hope you get some thoughtful responses. It’s a great question and I’m curious to hear how people feel about this.
    Like you, I know many excellent scientists employed by industry and would never question their ethics, but there is a widespread social distrust of “corporations” that causes people to question the morality of the organization or at least the “people at the top”. My personal bias is that I tend to trust people with a scientific education more than people without one (I guess it comes from the shared virtual camaraderie that comes from passing challening classes like physical chemistry), but that doesn’t help me decide which of two scientific reports is most trustworthy!

  4. Thanks Mary. I know what you mean about trusting people with a scientific background more, not because they are more honest just because they are more knowledgeable. I guess there are two reasons – if there was an issue about art or music, for example, I would trust people who actually know, not people like me. There’s also an attitude towards evidence that is integral to the sciences which isn’t always necessary for other disciplines. So anyone who is backing up their opinion with evidence, I’m willing to listen to.

    For the wider issues of the science in society, then evidence is just as important, but it may be evidence of a different kind. I’d like to hear more social scientists and economists getting involved in this kind of debate, and anyone with interesting contributions to make.

    I will be writing up thoughts from my party, watch this space!

  5. Pingback: Industry funding of research isn’t ‘hidden’ or corrupt | View from the fence

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