Conflicted Science: How Industry Corrupts Science

Conflicted Science:

How Industry Corrupts Research

By Judy Brady; quoted on Breast Cancer Website at

It’s worse than you thought. Most of us who have been paying attention in recent years are aware that science is often manipulated to serve the interests of whoever is paying for it. But a first-of-its-kind conference last summer in Washington, D.C., laid it out.

“Conflicted Science”, sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), was an intense daylong conference during which the presenters addressed from their own experience the central question: To what extent has the commercialization of science undermined science itself?

Journalists, researchers, and university professors from a wide range of fields (from environmental planning to pediatrics to criminal justice) recounted how corporate money has corrupted or stifled their disciplines. Hearing similar stories from so many people, one after the other, brought home a powerful and disturbing message: we can no longer trust what is presented to us as “science,” not even when it comes from what appear to be independent sources. Nonprofit organizations, public universities, and health charities, all too often dependent on corporate money, have become the messengers for corporate interests.

The American Cancer Society, for instance, got more than $100,000 in 2002 from each of nearly a hundred corporations, mostly drug, chemical, and cosmetic companies. The ACS program “Look Good, Feel Better,” funded by the perfume and cosmetics industries, is a good example of what happens with such “partnerships.” The ACS has remained silent about the carcinogenic chemicals used in most cosmetics.

There were stories of purposeful cover-ups in the lead, asbestos, tobacco, oil, and food industries, but one story stood out to this city-bred attendee. Two presenters from the South, epidemiologist Steven Wing from the University of North Carolina and JoAnn Burkholder, professor of aquatic biology from North Carolina State University, gave graphic and fascinating accounts of how a particular industry in their state, hog farming, thwarts any scientific investigation of its impact on neighboring communities—because if there’s no noise, there’s no problem. These CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are not the independent businesses they claim to be but are, in fact, owned by huge corporations that control all aspects of hog farming. Called “family farms” for tax purposes, the CAFOs produce 5 tons of animal fecal waste per person per year (a human being produces about 80 pounds of waste a year). When there is any public outcry about the waste dumps, it’s because of the terrible stench.

You can imagine how unpleasant it would be to live downwind from a hog-farm waste pool, but they do more than just stink. That waste, dumped into huge lagoons covering acres of land, contaminates the air and seeps into water supplies (most people depend on well water) as well as streams used for subsistence fishing, seriously threatening the health of the mostly low-income people-of-color communities that furnish workers for the CAFOs.1 Hog farming is one of North Carolina’s biggest industries, so there is no official attention paid to the steep price extracted from the animals, the workers, and the surrounding communities for those huge hog-farm profits.

The hog-farm industry responded to Wing’s research by demanding to know the names of people interviewed with health questionnaires, on which he based his findings. He and his team had promised the respondents confidentiality (they are the workers on those hog farms), and he could not betray that trust; both he and the industry knew that such a betrayal would mean no one in a community would ever again be available for epidemiological research. Finally, after many legal maneuverings, threats, and counter-threats, Wing was forced to turn over the individual questionnaires, but he managed to delete the identifying information first.

When asked how the university reacted to his investigation of and publications about the hog industry, Wing said his job is often on the line. The university gets its money from the state, allocated to it by the state legislature. The members of the legislature get elected to office by the power of corporate campaign contri-butions. Hog farming is a huge and lucrative industry and therefore supplies much of that campaign funding.

Industry Weapons

Industries have more tricks than simple economic pressure to stifle exposés. Tools customarily used by researchers digging for information hidden under corporate lock and key now serve corporate management in its efforts to foil science.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), for instance, is used by industries to force the premature disclosure of data so that the data can be attacked as flawed before a study is ever completed. And the last bastion of information gathering, which most of us have considered a powerful and indestructible weapon—the Internet—is now poised to become one more obstacle to investigators. Much of the evidence gathered against industries that have polluted our environment and our bodies has come from using the FOIA to uncover documents disclosing industrial crimes and proving that industry honchos knew they were engaged in criminal acts. But today’s paperless communication of the Internet will render the FOIA useless because a paper trail will no longer exist.

What are scientists to do? While most of the conference highlighted the abuses of corporate money, there were also attempts to propose solutions. None of the solutions offered, however, were really up to the challenge. Among the suggestions:

  • Universities should have ombudsmen on board to help researchers being pressured by industry
  • Policymakers must implement the precautionary principle
  • The media should refer to scientists who act on behalf of industry as “academic entrepreneurs,” not simply as “scientists”
  • The definition of “scientific misconduct” should be broadened to include industry-funded scientists influencing public policy

Most people advocated stricter disclosure policies for journals and scientific advisory boards, yet major medical journals have recently relaxed their disclosure policies because it’snearly impossible to find a scientist for peer review who is not connected to an industry. Further, there’s no way to force complete disclosure, so disclosure policies really boil down to a voluntary procedure.

The outrage expressed by the presenters and the audience stemmed generally from the perceived threat to the objectivity of science through the infusion of corporate money. Belief in the “objectivity” of Western science is a cultural cornerstone, and it is defended with the zeal of religious evangelism.

Yet Wing pointed out that what we call science was invented, as he said, by wealthy white males, and it reflects the racism, sexism, and other cultural biases of the society that nurtures it. That culture is increasingly fashioned by the needs of global corporate capitalism, so that more and more institutions, from agriculture to education and government, are becoming handmaidens of the corporate empire. While there are certainly pockets of resistance in science as in other spheres of modern life, it is unrealistic to expect that science will remain untainted.

Neil Munro, a journalist with the National Journal, remarked that we might as well bump the science column over to the business pages, since that’s where much of it really belongs. For those of us working to end the cancer epidemic, recognizing the reality of “conflicted science” means cultivating a constantly critical eye.

TAKE ACTIONGet informed! Visit the CSPI’s web site for conflicts of interest in science.

See Steve Wing’s article, “Social Responsibility and Research Ethics in Community-Driven Studies of Industrialized Hog Production” in Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2002. Rev. 4/20/05