Union of Concerned Scientists Exposes “Corporatization” of Science

Posted by Daniel Sharp March 15, 2012
Biopolitical Times

A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists takes on the increasingly problematic corporate sway over science. Aptly titled Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public's Expense, the report exposes the myriad social problems and conflicts of interest that emerge when corporations wield undue influence over the scientific process.

The report notes abuses in almost every domain of scientific research – from public health research on asbestos, silica and tobacco to climate science and nuclear power – that both present profound risks to public health and safety, and undermine the reliability of science.

The report includes a number of pharmaceutical scandals, but doesn’t specifically mention the bioethics work that has revealed extensive conflicts of interest and other problems in medicine and health care. The examples are a dime-a-dozen: corporate- funded medical ghost-writing in academic journals, the infamous revolving door between big pharma and government regulatory agencies, old-fashioned bribery, and – of course – those Viagra pens and Lipitor mugs that influence which prescriptions get written.  

Corporate influence is not only broad, but deep. As the report outlines in great detail,

corporations attempt to exert influence at every step of the scientific and policy-making processes, often to shape decisions in their favor or avoid regulation and monitoring of their products and by-products at the public’s expense.

A collection of vivid examples of documented abuse illustrates the many methods of corporate influence: publishing and popularizing bogus research, suppressing findings, bullying, bribing, and corrupting regulatory agencies, just to name a few. One of the most striking sections of the report describes how corporations

bury scientific information by harassing scientists and their institutions into silence. The coercion comes in many forms. Corporations muzzle scientists by including gag orders in research or employment contracts.

For example,

In 2000, Dr. John Buse at the University of North Carolina found that Avandia users had a high risk of heart disease, and published his findings. In response, Dr. Buse alleges, a representative from the company contacted his boss, accused him of lying, and threatened to sue him for a $4 billion drop in the company’s stock valuation.

Such stories seemed timely in context of the recent CellTex debacle, in which legal threats are being made against two University of Minnesota bioethicists by a Texas-based stem-cell company offering questionable treatments that have not been approved by the FDA.  (For the latest on the CellTex scandal, see here, here, and here).

The Union of Concerned Scientists report includes an extensive list of recommendations for “essential federal reforms” to help protect science and science policy makers from “undue corporate influence.” The recommendations focus on four key areas – protection of scientists, government transparency and accountability, regulatory reforms, and increased public access to scientific information.

It remains to be seen how these findings and recommendations will impact federal policy, but the report is certainly a welcome voice of dissent amidst the rising tide of corporate science.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: