Friday, February 20, 2009

Industry Thwarting Research

As the economy continues to slump, publicly funded research is also drying up. Are there risks associated with private industry funding research, and if so, how do we, as citizens, read research with a concerning eye? An article published in the New York Times yesterday by Andrew Pollack: Crop Scientist Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research addresses biased research in agriculture.

A statement made to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 26 scientists was posted to a non-rule making docket titled: Evaluation of the Resistance Risks from Using a Seed Mix Refuge with Pioneer's Optimum AcreMax 1 Corn Rootworm-Protected Corn. The statement says:
"Technology/stewardship agreements required for the purchase of genetically modified seed explicitly prohibit research. These agreements inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry. As a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology, its performance, its management implications, IRM, and its interactions with insect biology. Consequently, data flowing to an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel from the public sector is unduly limited."
In other words, some scientists feel as if industry has a chokehold not only on the research that is being conducted, but on what is actually being disseminated to the public. This research problem is largely under-reported and under-addressed to a science illiterate public. An article by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry called Who's Getting It Right and Who's Getting in Wrong in the Debate About Science Literacy, dives deeper into this equally important issue. You can add science based blogs to your RSS here.

Research should be a public good and government should be conducting research to protect the wellbeing of its citizens from corporate strongholds. Another example of the system failing by Tom Phillpot of the Grist is in the issue of Why is the FDA unwilling to study evidence of mercury in high-fructose corn syrup? I would argue much has to do with skill. The Crème de la Crop of scientists and research are easily enticed by high paying jobs in industry, not in regulatory positions at FDA. The FDA lacks man power and funding. On the flip side, those who are working in for the public interest (i.e. the scientists who just published their statement to the EPA) are being manipulated as well.

A professor at Tufts, Sheldon Krimsky, has done extensive work on the effects of industry on research. He argues that a series of laws, federal policies and court decisions have enabled private interest "stakeholder science" to gain influence over university research. His book "Science in the Private Interest"sparked a website that continues to address these issues.

The key to change, Krimsky says, is separating the financial interests from the science. A daunting task indeed.

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