Is privately funded science more likely to lose its neutrality?

17


Discussion by: Trojan Horus

Reading this article in the Huffington Post I worry about where scientific funding will come from in the future.

 

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/14/sequestration-cuts_n_3749432.html

17 COMMENTS

  1. “Is privately funded science more likely (than publicly funded science?) to lose its neutrality?”

    Don’t think this is what you meant by the question (admittedly, I didn’t read the article), but I wouldn’t consider publicly funded science any more likely to be nuetral than privately funded science.

    • In reply to #1 by ekturner3:

      “Is privately funded science more likely (than publicly funded science?) to lose its neutrality?”

      Don’t think this is what you meant by the question (admittedly, I didn’t read the article), but I wouldn’t consider publicly funded science any more likely to be nuetral than privately funded science.

      I’ve skimmed the article. It seems NIM health research funds are being cut back or ‘sequestrated’. This compares to a 2007 high of $29.2 billion (under GW Bush).

      I don’t know the full background – and I don’t think the article gives it – but how different is this reduction on 2007 levels of spend compared to others? i.e., is there a policy to reduce, even phase out state funded research or is this part of the recession? I understand (vaguely) that the US still has to make its books balance in the long run.

      On the neutrality question, I think state funds can take a longer term view (projects like the LHC would probably not happen privately) as they can go outside commercial interest. And private research in health can get very commercial. Yet, state funded research can be problematic – for example few governments feel able to justify the long investment cycle and risks of new drug development (I’m not defending Pharma’s abuses here btw). Again, private research might be more innovative. So, I think a mix of state and private is best as ewel las more realistic.

  2. We only have to look at big pharma, the tobacco industry, and carbon industry AGW denial, to recognise that research can be corrupted, or funding withheld from valid neutral objective work, where research is dependent on private sponsorship.

    This is not to say that research and development work cannot be done better by private specialist contractors where specific tasks are contracted out by the likes of NASA.

  3. Just look at some of the stuff Ben Goldacre talks about with how paid-for clinical drug trials are really dodgy. Basically, they don’t have to publish the data that fails to give the results they want, so they can cherry-pick the trials they do publicize and thereby make random results appear non-random by only telling you about the existence of a few of them. Imagine a test where you roll a 6-sided die 18 times and record how many of them were a ‘six’. The mean result by chance should be 3 times. But now imagine if you did that test itself 20 times. The chance of getting just a few of those 20 trials of 18 rolls each to come up a lot higher than 3 is very likely by random chance. Now imagine if you do that, and only publish the top 2 or 3 trials of 18 each where the results were highest, and sweep under the rug and ignore the other 17-18 trials and don’t tell the public that they exist. The ability to avoid publishing the trials that would prove the results were in fact random and not as significant as you claimed gives you the ability to pretend there’s a real effect going on when there isn’t.

  4. Regarding Big Pharma , it could be argued that scientific research is biased towards producing treatment options , that can be highly profitable , rather than producing cures , which are less profitable. Genomic solutions are not profitable. Surely diabetes , where the mechanisms are known , could benefit in this way but I wouldn’t be surprised that in 100 years times we will still be looking at insulin replacement.

    To answer your question , Yes

  5. Is privately funded science more likely to lose its neutrality?

    Yes. In every instance where science is treated as a profitable business model, certain aspects of it become corrupted. Big tobacco paid numerous scientists to start with the conclusion that Tobacco does not cause cancer, and cherry-pick evidence and stage mock trials that affirm that conclusion. Big pharma has been known to do the same thing to promote profitable drugs with horrendous side effects. In many cases, they do not even try to hide the bias.

    However, many publicly funded projects are also biased, as they have to show consistent progress and acceptable results to maintain funding. Neither are perfect, but I believe public funding to be the lesser of two evils.

    • In reply to #6 by Tlhedglin:

      Yes. In every instance where science is treated as a profitable business model, certain aspects of it become corrupted.

      If you treat it as a business model I agree it gets corrupted. However, there have been rare cases where for profit companies have sponsored research that was pretty fundamental and uncorrupted. The ones I know of are in computer science. Bell Labs is I think the best example. IBM’s lab would probably be second although maybe first since they have lasted a lot longer than Bell Labs did. Xerox PARC was an amazing place although they did more advanced engineering and R&D rather than basic research. For it to work the company needs to be highly committed to branding and reputation and think being seen as a science leader is worth investing some money. Also it helps if the execs are the kind of insightful people who understand that even though research has to be open and public there can still be tremendous synergies for companies that “invent the future”.

      • In reply to #7 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #6 by Tlhedglin:

        Yes. In every instance where science is treated as a profitable business model, certain aspects of it become corrupted.

        If you treat it as a business model I agree it gets corrupted. However, there have been rare cases where for profit companies have sponsored research…

        In computer sciences and technology, faulty research would lead to products with terrible flaws or devices that simply would not function, it is in their self-interest to make sure their research is accurate and useful, no?

        • In reply to #8 by Tlhedglin:

          In computer sciences and technology, faulty research would lead to products with terrible flaws or devices that simply would not function, it is in their self-interest to make sure their research is accurate and useful, no?

          BUT:- There must be a host of technical products which are designed to give their manufacturers a monopoly, or to produce components deliberately made incompatible with competitors’ products.

          • In reply to #10 by Alan4discussion:

            BUT:- There must be a host of technical products which are designed to give their manufacturers a monopoly, or to produce components deliberately made incompatible with competitors’ products

            Actually one of the encouraging things about the IT industry at least is how rarely that happens and how when it does happen open standards based systems win out over closed proprietary systems almost every time. Its so much part of the common IT wisdom now that you can see it reflected in the promotional materials of any big HW or SW vendor. “Proprietary” is never used except as a way to slander the competition and “open” and “standards compliant” are claimed for almost every product (even where its not all that true).

            And the main reason is that in the short history of the IT industry open systems have won out over closed ones time and again. Token Ring was a proprietary IBM standard that lost out to the open (and Xerox PARC invented) Ethernet. There were a lot of competitive network protocols to the Internet Protocol (why people talk about an IP address) again one big one from IBM but the open Internet protocols won out. Microsoft tried a lot of proprietary extensions to other Internet related standards, they had their own version of HTML if I recall it was DHTML and their own version of Java but again the open ones won out.

            Also, its just a part of nerd culture to like things that are open and based on standards and to reject things that aren’t. Of course nerds need to do what CIOs and CEOs tell them but a good CIO will pay attention to her nerds because a happy nerd is a more productive nerd (why there are so many foosball tables in Silicon Valley)

  6. In reply to #8 by Tlhedglin:

    In computer sciences and technology, faulty research would lead to products with terrible flaws or devices that simply would not function, it is in their self-interest to make sure their research is accurate and useful, no?

    I need to define my terms a bit more. I make a distinction between basic science research and technology R&D. So everything done at Xerox PARC (and all the research I’ve ever done) are technology R&D. That stuff is still mostly public but it can still give a company an enormous advantage if they know how to use it. Its ironic that it was Apple, Microsoft, and other companies that made whole new industries out of the stuff invented at Xerox.

    So your argument about products applies to that but I wasn’t talking about that kind of research. I thought this article was about basic science research. Things I consider basic science are projects like the guys at Bell Labs who discovered the microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. Or the foundational work on language and computing by people like Chomsky and Turing. I can’t think of any lab that has done that kind of work and tried to run the lab as a business. And I also think its hard for any business to keep funding that kind of basic research for very long without it being corrupted. Part of the reason Bell Labs was able to do what they did was at the time was that AT&T, even though it was for profit had a special status as a legal monopoly. It gave them more leeway and also more pressure to market themselves to the public as altruistic.

    And by corrupted i don’t mean necessarily that research will be distorted and directed to make the company look good. I’m not saying that won’t happen, I take that as a given that it has and will, as others have pointed out tobacco and pharmas. I’m just saying even when that doesn’t happen the pressure from share holders to maximize profit will eventually steer the lab away from basic science to more applied r&d.

  7. There are area’s where government should take action,

    1) The obesity epidemic, metabolic syndrome(Insulin resistance , Cholesterol , Blood pressure , etc)

    2) Mental Health

    These cause the biggest disability payout in the western world.

    Surely we are gone past the point where the cash in government coffers from private health insurance and big pharma exceed their own outlay on disability and health care. And of course there are all the lost earnings from income tax if the service users were healthy.

    If health was maintained longer I would assume a generally better society with an overall net positive contribution regardless of the problems an ageing population would bring

    In reply to #1 by ekturner3:

    “Is privately funded science more likely (than publicly funded science?) to lose its neutrality?”

    Don’t think this is what you meant by the question (admittedly, I didn’t read the article), but I wouldn’t consider publicly funded science any more likely to be nuetral than privately funded science.

    • In reply to #13 by DocWebster:

      Unless funding for scientific research is completely blind and deaf there will always be some measurable loss of neutrality.

      I look at it differently. I think no funding process can ever be completely without some bias. The point is to have a process that recognizes that and is designed to minimize it.

  8. One area where public research would be better than private research is in medical science. Private research has a preference for trying to find ongoing long lasting treatments that don’t fix the problem, but just mitigate the severity of it down to a manageable level. This turns ill people into lifetime permanent customers. Public research when the health provider is the government views that as an expensive taxing solution and would prefer a cure that gets rid of the need for the ongoing treatment.

    • In reply to #14 by Steven Mading:

      Public research when the health provider is the government views that as an expensive taxing solution and would prefer a cure that gets rid of the need for the ongoing treatment.

      . … . . . Or pre-emptive preventative treatment (such as fluoridation of water or dietary advice), which prevents problems arising in the first place.

Leave a Reply