This piece appeared on NationalPost.com.
The recent proposed Canadian restrictions on products such as baby bottles containing the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) is but the latest unscientific legislation made possible in part by a dangerous prevailing assumption: namely, that anti-corporate claims are by definition "good science" while claims made in defense of industry or new technology -- by anyone with the slightest ties to industry -- are by definition "suspect science." Ironically, consumers end up paying higher prices as a result of such ostensibly consumer-protecting measures (as products need to be replaced or reformulated) or even end up using less-safe replacement products, such as old-fashioned glass bottles.
Yet the strange belief behind all this -- the assumption that all corporate money is corrupting -- is not a traditional one in scientific circles.
Until recent years, it was more common to hear people celebrate events such as, say, the mid-June announcement that the chemical company Pfizer is donating $15 million to cancer research at the University of Pennsylvania. In the current climate of debate, I'm forced to wonder: will any of UPenn's conclusions, should they prove politically controversial, be believed?
If, for instance, two years from now, UPenn releases studies suggesting that some previously-unnoticed genetic mechanism contributes to cancer -- but also suggesting that industrial chemicals are not significant contributors to cancer causation -- will all of the institution's hard work be dismissed as corporate propaganda?
That seems to be the direction in which anti-corporate activists such as the Nader-inspired Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are slowly but surely pushing debate. They have, in essence, decided capitalism causes cancer, and any deviation from that narrative can be quickly punished by pointing to the targeted scientists' ties to corporate money.
¢ ¢ ¢
As is so often the case, people with little expertise or knowledge of standard practice in a discipline have been whipped into a frenzy recently by activists who are able to make what is routine sound scandalous -- and in a highly selective, strategic way. CSPI and others, ignoring decades of productive collaboration between industry and science, can now delegitimize any scientist or scientific conclusion with which they disagree by showing that the scientist or research in question is tied to corporate money.
Never mind the fact that virtually every modern medical innovation was created in collaboration with industry. Never mind the fact that scientists are often sought out as consultants by industry not because they are corrupt but precisely because they are tops in their field and have valuable insights to offer.
In the current climate, those scientists must be wary of damaging their future credibility by working with industry -- and governmental scientific review panels, the ones often pointed to for the "last word" on some public health controversy, must be wary of using those scientists who have done industry consulting. That of course leaves available the scientists who are either too incompetent or too anti-industry to have been called upon as consultants -- which is exactly how anti-industry activists like it.
Medical journals, desperate to avoid any appearance of bias, now routinely attempt to ferret out what they perceive as "conflict of interest" by requiring that authors disclose any funding they have received from drug companies. CSPI touts its "Integrity in Science Project," which separates what they perceive as integrity-rich scientists (who do not accept industry funding) from the integrity-challenged scientists (with some type of link to corporate dollars). The witch-hunt is in full gear, with all disclosure short of mandated scarlet C's for the foreheads of those who collaborate with Corporations.
¢ ¢ ¢
There are a number of reasons why the dichotomy of "good" science versus "suspect" science based on corporate funding is simplistic. Consider:
¢Why would a consulting history with Pfizer or DuPont be more a source of potential bias for a researcher than a history of membership in environmental-activist groups like Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, or foundations committed to ridding the world of what they perceive to be nasty industrial chemicals?
¢There are myriad nonfinancial factors that can influence scientists and impair their objectivity, from strongly held political convictions to the desire for glory in a given field to a "cognitive dissonance factor," which causes a researcher who has spent years trying to prove a point to skew data to yield the desired conclusion.
¢The current obsession with corporate ties as a "conflict of interest" is not harmless. It has led to regulations and restrictions in government and academia that have restricted scientists, preventing collaboration with external scientific experts and slowing development of new technologies.
¢Government agencies are being denied access to the best available scientific advice if only those who can claim an "industry-free" resume are left in the candidate pool.
¢Obsession with "transparency" regarding funding sources has come to obscure what is truly important about scientific research: the quality of the research process and the legitimacy of the findings. If a study is done meticulously and accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, why does it matter who funds it?
The current trend toward cleansing government panels of scientists with any taint of industrial support will leave scientific debate in the hands solely of those who pass the politically-correct test. Credentials, accomplishments, and expertise will be superseded by a candidate's anti-business credentials and leanings. Their adherence to an anti-chemical, anti-business philosophy and the precautionary principle will bring progress to a grinding halt.
¢ ¢ ¢
While it is quite common for scientists is some countries -- such as Scotland -- to tout the spin-off companies that they are creating from their academic research, such practices are becoming taboo in the U.S., driving research elsewhere.
Dr. Ashely Bush, for example, discovered novel compounds that reversed Alzheimer's-like effects in mice. Presumably, marketing compounds that could do the same in humans would be a good thing. However, Dr. Bush had the misfortune to work at Harvard University -- and what he described as its "extremely harsh conflict of interest rules" caused him to despair of trying to make his compounds commercially viable while still conducting research there. Indeed, Harvard's rules forbid him to have any commercial interest in his work -- not the best incentive to create work that humanity might value and be willing to pay for.
He moved to Australia and joined the faculty of the University of Melbourne, commenting, "In the last ten years, I have seen a lot of talent leave academia over university conflicts of interest rules."
That sort of thing doesn't seem to bother the anti-conflict-of-interest crusaders, though. Even though the approval of new pharmaceuticals by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for example, has slowed to a trickle (it approved only nineteen new medications last year), anti-chemical activists have been highly effective in painting a picture of an "overmedicated" world and scientific review panels bribed by industry to ram unsafe pills down the gullets of an unsuspecting populace.
They see this, like so many regulatory pushes, as "erring on the safe side" and hewing to the "precautionary principle" -- the view that all new technology is suspect until proven absolutely safe. This Luddite/green principle has brought pharmaceutical development, chemical use, and biotech each to a near-standstill in Continental Europe and is beginning to work its dark magic here in North America.
¢ ¢ ¢
In an ideal world, perhaps all scientists would be independently wealthy -- or funding would come from some unbiased supernatural source such as the Tooth Fairy.
In the real world, money has to come from somewhere, and it's worth noting that even government money comes with potential perverse incentives -- government, after all, has an incentive to promulgate fear of crises in order to make itself appear useful (in its role as protector). Activist organizations and even staid private foundations have an interest in getting donations or enacting the visions of their founders (money is not likely to find its way to scientists _by accident_, after all, so in some sense all funding is funding from parties with a stake in the research). Our most vaunted institutions of higher learning are themselves the recipients of donations from all the aforementioned funding sources.
In fact, it sometimes seems that the anti-conflicts crusade, taken to its logical conclusion, would lead to a world in which there simply wasn't any funding of scientific research. And my greatest fear is that while to many of us that outcome sounds disastrous, it secretly suits the activists just fine. Many of them see industry and science as manmade blights on a once-pure, all-natural world. Alternative medicine advocates, for example, often talk of pharmaceuticals as a deadly conspiracy to "keep us sick" and tout herbal and "all-natural" remedies as preferable. If the companies that make pharmaceuticals closed up shop, they'd be delighted.
However, human lifespans, doubled over the past century in large part because of advances such as vaccines and other pharmaceuticals, would drop precipitously. And would the activists say they were sorry -- or would they revel in the new, more authentic, more natural, and far more dangerous world they'd helped create?
So the next time you hear about one more choice being taken away from consumers -- such as those baby bottles made with BPA -- instead of picturing a world made a bit purer, a bit more "progressive," remind yourself that such bans are slowly but surely subtracting from the world, removing bit by bit the industrial civilization we've worked so long and hard to create. Life was nasty, brutish, and short before, and when we've gotten rid of everything "tainted" by chemicals, corporations, and potential conflicts of interest, it will be again.