Monday, 11 December 2006

Richard Doll: Supping with the Devil?

The Guardian and Today programmes' revelations that Richard Doll was paid to do research for the chemicals industry (Friday 8th December) are the latest in a series of media exposes of scientists' links with industry. Investigative journalists have shocked many with the news that a string of supposedly independent scientists advising us on some of the hottest topics of the day are in the pay of industry and by implication not to be trusted.

In the last few years, media reports have written off the entire scientific advisory panel on GM crops because some members had ties to industry; launched an attack on a highly respected MMR expert because she happened to be on the same side as vaccine manufacturers in a legal challenge and accused one of Europe's leading nutritionists of attacking the Atkins Diet because her institution once received a small grant from the Flour Advisory Bureau.

The apparently ever increasing links between science and industry are definitely a subject worthy of investigation and if anything there are too few journalists with the time to pursue potential conflicts of interest in this area. But the problem with the Richard Doll story and many other similar 'exposes' is that the journalists don't feel the need to come up with the hard proof that a link with industry has corrupted the independent scientist and his or her research findings. Instead these articles often end up relying on the public’s suspicion of industry to get away with guilt by association rather than proving that guilt through intrepid investigation.

For the scientists who contact the Science Media Centre after these kinds of stories the criticisms are bewildering, appearing to combine an attack on their integrity with a naivety about the way science is done in the UK. It’s a fact of life that there is more research needing to be done than public money to fund it and a lot of science would simply not be done without some collaboration between industry and independent scientists. Universities now have to find substantial sums from the private sector if they are to unlock Government funds for research and even the Research Councils, who are on the more blue-skies end of scientific research, are being encouraged to forge closer links with industry. According to Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, the whole concept of an independent scientist is a misnomer:

"Although the public repeatedly tell us that they trust independent scientists more than those in industry, the reality is that as a species the truly independent scientist is becoming extinct. But the idea that because a scientist has some links with industry they are automatically tainted and evil is just ridiculous."

Professor Adam Finn, a leading expert in childhood vaccines from Bristol University, points out that it’s not possible for scientists like him to be involved in developing life saving vaccines without working alongside the vaccine manufacturing companies who pay for the all the clinical trials. Finn believes that the public and media need to have more of an insight into the way things work in science and medicine: "throughout the world this is how societies have opted to do it – through a collaboration between academia and industry."

And there are other relevant facts that fail to show up in the exposes, like the introduction of written agreements which allow the scientists to publish irrespective of the results and the fact that most of the top journals now require scientists to declare any conflict of interest. And then there’s the small matter of 'peer review', described by one scientist as "the best bullshit detector ever invented", which ensures that research doesn't get published unless it passes a number of quality control tests applied by independent experts.

Of course many journalists will argue that irrespective of any hard evidence it goes without saying that individuals and institutions benefiting from industry funding will not be keen to bite the hand that feeds them. Yet however counter-intuitive it may seem to journalists, whose default mode is rightly to be sceptical and questioning about motives, the charge still requires proof. For the Science Media Centre, the impulse to earn the trust of news journalist and build a reputation as an independent source far, far outweighs any desire to be popular with sponsors (and that includes our media sponsors!). Similarly for scientists who have spent 30 years building a track record of research to simply sell their science to the highest bidder is extremely unlikely and would bring a rapid end to a scientific career.

Of course the media's role is to expose corruption and bias in science and if and when the media find evidence that scientists have allowed commercial pressures to influence their research it should be headline news. Indeed there are many fine examples of that kind of investigation – not least in exposing the role of the tobacco industry's dodgy dealings in the past. But sadly investigations like these now seem to be outnumbered by the variety that opt for guilt by association.

Ironically there are other issues in this area that are crying out for investigation but have been largely ignored by the media. These include the concerns raised by a number of leading scientists like Nobel prize winner John Sulston and fertility expert Robert Winston, that the commercial collaborations with our Universities may be having a long-term impact on academic freedom and blue skies research. Or whether the rush to create spin out companies is turning innovative scientists into businessmen with more of an eye on the share prices than the public good. But these topics demand serious journalistic investigation - a thing in short supply in our fast moving 24 hour news environment.

However, having spent most of this article casting aspersions on this aspect of journalism I suspect that, as is often the case, the answer lies amongst the scientific community ourselves. After all the Science Media Centre philosophy is "we can get the media to 'do' science better by getting the scientists to 'do' media better". The truth is that these kinds of stories will continue to be popular with editors as long as the public are largely blissfully unaware of the fact that much UK science is a product of a collaboration between academia and industry and are therefore shocked to hear 'revelations' about the close links between the two.

The fact that - to paraphrase Blakemore - the truly independent scientist no longer exists would I suspect come as a shock to the public and commentators. Christina Odone in her passionate defence of Richard Doll in this week’s Observer argued that these days scientists steer well clear of big business. In fact the opposite is the case – but I suspect Ms Odone is not the only journalist out there who is not up to date with the realities of how research takes place today - something for which we surely have to take responsibility. With some notable exceptions many scientists still prefer to stay in the lab than address public concerns about the more controversial issues in science. At least with the attack on Richard Doll the scientific community fought back with a brilliant open letter to the media defending his integrity - but previous attacks have been met with complete silence from scientists and even press officers taking the 'if we stay quiet this will hopefully go away' approach.

And Government should be questioning their role here too. Anyone who has heard Dave King or Lord Sainsbury or indeed Tony Blair’s recent science speech will know that these people are immensely proud of the new ways that industry and academia are collaborating. Whether or not this closer collaboration is a good idea is not for this column but my point is this - have the enthusiasts for this policy actually come up with a way of making the case to the public? Where is the much loved government 'communications strategy'? Either it’s non existent or ineffective - either way it needs urgent attention. All the public opinion polls on who we trust show that independent scientists come out with a high trust rating, government scientists less so and industry scientists are right down there at the bottom (although perhaps reassuringly still above the media!). For me it’s blindingly obvious that if you want to move towards ever closer links between independent and industry science, you need to go out there and explain why it's a good thing and why it doesn’t inevitably lead to the kinds of compromising of good science implied in the Doll story.

I suppose the really big question is why it matters. So what if a few scientists are suffering from bruised egos – surely it's the price they pay for supping with the corporate devil? Well, yes, I think it matters hugely. Media attacks on the independence and integrity of scientists working with industry threaten to undermine the kind of expertise that is absolutely crucial to public debate around controversial issues like childhood vaccination, the safety of GM crops and so on. If we cannot hear from the very people who have built up a huge body of knowledge based on painstaking research and enquiry – then we as a society lose the ability to have a truly informed debate.