When I was a little girl, the professor from Gillian’s Island was my hero. He was smart, unassuming, and solved a lot of problems. I deduced that scientists were incredible. As clever as physicians, with the power to save lives, but much cooler, as they shunned the limelight. Later in TV history came McGuyer, who fixed an awful lot of problems with duct tape and scientific knowledge.
Nowadays, scientists1 often seem to be on the evil side of the human equation. ‘They’ have conflicts of interest, because their primary activity – research – could be supported by a commercial interest, either a large corporation or their own startup company. Everything is questioned for the agenda. This post considers the impact of a scientists’ source of funding, and a second one will examine public disclosures that scientists now are almost required to make.
A major shift over the past 60 years has occurred in the way scientific research is supported. This page shows the switch in dominance of research paid for by the government versus private industry in the US. Until the late 1970’s, most research was supported by the government. In 2012, only 30% was government funded while more than 60% is industry sponsored. The pressure on academic researchers to commercialize the findings of their research has made for more industry ties – either by licensing to an existing business or encouraging researchers to create their own startup.
While this may cause some to throw up their arms in alarm and shout invectives about the corruption of research and polarized agendas and corporations paying for the results they want, for most of history, private individuals were benefactors of scientists. In other words, someone rich, on whose favour the scientist depended, doled out the money to feed and house the scientist, while they grew hundreds of bean plans, or gazed through a telescope at the stars and then disappeared into a dank library to do endless pages of mathematics. We’ve built our understanding of countless things, like the structure of the galaxy, human anatomy, and the theory of evolution, on the basis of privately funded research. Did any of the individuals who supported the scientists try to influence the conclusions of their research? Probably, but the passage of time, and the work of other scientists differentiate between influence and true findings.
I think part of what keeps science unbiased is that there are people, scientists, that live to investigate, to answer unanswerable questions. They don’t care who makes money out of it. They want to toil in obscurity, reasoning and experimenting things out. Problem is, we all have to eat. So what’s a scientist to do? Most are not in it for the money.
I’ve lived through several rounds of precipitously declining government funding for research, where university administrators warn the faculty (where a good percentage of scientists reside) of declining grants and encourage them to make friends with business people, as a means to survive in the research style to which they have become accustomed. Heck, I’ve even put on events myself to encourage industry sponsors and researchers to chat and form alliances.
To make this discussion more complicated, there is basic scientific research, of the type that asks and answers abstract questions, say about gravitation waves or behaviour of silicon in solid state, and may one day allow better satellite tracking or microelectronics. Then there is applied science, such as new drug testing. Although basic research, or what’s call curious-based research2, is generally of less interest to industry representatives3, a significant portion of development in the pharmaceutical industry has to be done in collaboration with medical researchers. Physicians who do research as well as care for patients, are the ones with the training and opportunity to work with the relevant patients.
As a recent example of how pervasive this sort of support of medical research is, this paper discusses the number of US physicians who report some kind of payment from an industry sources, including research support, consulting fees, or just sandwiches at a conference. The study found that almost half of physicians studied received some kind of payment, with the overall average being a bit over $5000 in a year.
It’s a tricky relationship, between physician researcher and pharmaceutical company. Doctors are the best ones to know which patients need new solutions for their medical conditions. Pharmaceutical companies understand how their new drugs work. They need each other, the doctors and the drug makers, and we need them to need each other, so we can benefit from the new drugs. I can’t imagine a physician that would knowingly harm a patient, particularly to get research money, as the point to research is to discover useful new ways to make people better. It would be like a chef accepting sponsorship to make foul-tasting food. On the other side of the equation, there’s so much potential for conflict of interest, both perceived and real, and some history of abuse of the system.
For both basic and medical scientists, often the choice is to get involved with a big business and accept their backing, or stop doing research. Research on zero dollars a day doesn’t work.
Why has this reality lead many to decide scientists are evil? The scientists I know are noble people who prefer to devote themselves to finding the truth, often the truth of discovering better medicines, over capitalistic gains. Am I naive?
I’m a scientist, and I am defending my colleagues, my tribe. But I have no agenda. Except the agenda I’m suggesting is the one of most scientists: Truth.
1Using a very broad, inclusive definition of scientist here which includes the natural, social and applied scientists.
2This seems like a bit of a cruel joke, because ‘curiosity-based’ research, is far from a frivolous, random or carried out by people skipping through meadows, chasing shiny butterflies, activity.
3A couple of upcoming technologies, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, contradict this statement, since we appear to have ideas for implementation of the technology as fast as we can understand it.