Is a Little Pollution Good for You? Incorporating Societal Values in Environmental Research

By Kevin C. Elliott | Go to book overview
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4
Lesson #1
Safeguarding Science

In a striking investigation of studies that analyzed new biomedical drugs, researchers found that only 5 percent of those funded by companies that developed the drugs gave unfavorable evaluations of the new products.1 In contrast, 38 percent of those funded by independent sources gave unfavorable evaluations when analyzing the same drugs. Findings of this sort, which indicate that research results tend to be correlated with funding sources, have become common.2 For example, a classic study in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined 106 review articles on the health effects of passive smoking and found that 63 percent of the articles concluded that it was harmful, while 37 percent disagreed. A multiple regression analysis that controlled for factors such as article quality, topic, year of publication, and peer review found that the only factor associated with the reviews’ conclusions was whether the authors were affiliated with the tobacco industry.3 Three-fourths of the articles that rejected the existence of health effects from passive smoking were funded by industry groups, but few of those articles revealed their funding sources.

In response to these sorts of worrisome findings, the present chapter provides an important lesson for those who want to keep policy-relevant science responsive to societal values. It argues that current university financial conflict-of-interest (COI) policies are not sufficient to keep academic science from being hijacked by powerful interest groups, especially those associated with industry. Rather, a range of other strategies, such as increased government funding for policy-relevant topics, is needed in order to safeguard university science from being overly influenced by “deep pockets.” This is not to say that government-funded science is completely value free. Furthermore,

1. Friedberg et al., “Evaluation of Conflict of Interest.”

2. See, for example, Als-Nielsen et al., “Association of Funding and Conclusions”; Bekelman, Lee, and Gross, “Scope and Impact of Financial Conflicts”; Davidson, “Source of Funding and Outcomes”; Stelfox et al., “Conflict of Interest.”

3. Barnes and Bero, “Why Review Articles on the Health Effects of Passive Smoking.”

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