Caveat Emptor

The best science money can buy


"Follow the money" is always a good rule when evaluating claims. If someone has a financial interest in something, there's always the possibility that their judgment might be somewhat biased.

Following this maxim, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) held its second Integrity in Science Conference earlier this week. It was dedicated to examining "corporate and political influence on science-based policymaking." CSPI's founder and current president, Michael Jacobson, opened the conference by briefly acknowledging that science can benefit from business, especially from its instruments and dollars.

But he immediately went on to claim that corporations use a range of tools to illegitimately influence science, including sponsoring research to put their products in the best light, downplaying and sometimes even suppressing inconvenient research findings, undermining health policy groups (like CSPI?), and, perhaps most nefariously, by sponsoring nonprofit groups to influence policy and the media.

Jacobson concluded that industry's influence over scientific research and science policy has become more blatant and more potent in recent years. From the tone of his remarks, one might get the impression that most industry-sponsored scientific research was just so much consumer fraud.

The true story is more complex. The United States spent $276 billion on research and development (R&D) in 2002, according to the National Science Foundation. Of that, $181 billion (nearly two-thirds) came from private industry, $78 billion from the federal government, and the remaining $17 billion from states, universities, and miscellaneous sources. Surely, companies must be spending their R&D dollars on something more than schemes to swindle consumers and mislead regulators.

Despite CSPI's anti-business tone, it makes some reasonable proposals, especially concerning disclosure. For example, CSPI wants scientists to disclose who funds their research before it is accepted for peer-reviewed publication. It also advises journalists to disclose the corporate funding of scientists they quote in their articles. Good advice.

"If a reporter is going to quote a group like the American Council on Science and Health, the Center for Consumer Freedom, or other nonprofit groups funded by corporations, that reporter should be sure to identify the corporations that fund it," Jacobson declared in a pre-conference press release. "Anything less cheats the readers and viewers." Fair enough, if a reasonable inference could be made that a specific corporate funder would have an interest in the research at issue. (Few journalists have space to list every single corporate funder of a group like that every time its research is cited.)

To help reporters in that task, in 2003 CSPI published a handy report, Lifting the Veil of Secrecy: Corporate Support for Health and Environmental Professional Associations, Charities and Industry Front Groups. The 2003 report lifted "the veil of secrecy" to find that the American Cancer Society, the American Council on Science and Health, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the American Liver Foundation, the American Psychiatric Association, the Arthritis Foundation, and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America all received some corporate funding. And that's just the A's.

Perhaps as a result of the reporting of my Reason colleague Jacob Sullum, CSPI thoughtfully lifted "the veil of secrecy" from the corporate funding that the Reason Foundation receives in its 2004 Lifting the Veil of Secrecy update. How does CSPI discover all these dark, veiled secrets? By infiltrating the organizations with moles and photocopying their secret files? Monitoring clandestine meetings between non-profiteers and their corporate masters at K Street bistros? Intercepting confidential e-mail memos issued by industry lobbyists?

Nope—for the most part, CSPI did what any citizen can do: They downloaded the information from the various groups' Web sites. Some veil of secrecy! By the way, if you're interested in who supports Reason, you needn't bother reading the CSPI report. Just go here.

Amusingly, just in time for the CSPI conference, the Center for Consumer Freedom (which, by the way, is largely funded by the food and restaurant industries) issued a press release pointing out that CSPI doesn't mind quoting the work of scientists who receive corporate support when it suits its own purposes.

For example, CSPI quotes the estimate that obesity causes 300,000 premature deaths in the U.S. annually. That figure evidently comes from a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1999, co-authored by University of Alabama at Birmingham researcher David Allison. CSPI's Integrity in Science site itself lists over 20 companies that have supported Allison's research. (Put his, or any other researcher's, last names in the search box at the site.)

CSPI also asserts that "almost two-thirds (61%) of American adults are overweight or obese." The Godfather of that figure is St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center researcher Xavier Pi-Sunyer, who headed up the National Institutes of Health task force that lowered the Body Mass Index definition of overweight from 30 to 25. This change swelled the ranks of the overweight by tens of millions instantly.

Still, CSPI itself in other contexts is so worried about Pi-Sunyer's industry ties that Jacobson wanted him removed from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advisory board.

CSPI's reliance on corporate science doesn't stop there. It claims that obesity costs the country $117 billion annually. This estimate comes from a journal article co-authored by Harvard obesity researcher Graham Colditz. CSPI worries that some of Colditz's research was supported by Roche Pharmaceuticals and Florida Citrus Growers.

CSPI is entirely right that researchers should disclose their industry ties. However, after examining the evidence above about how many results from corporate-funded scientists CSPI relies on in other contexts, one might be excused for thinking that CSPI recommends following the money only if research contradicts its agenda.

The point is not that the research on which CSPI is relying for its assertions about obesity is flawed, but that "follow the money" is not the only rule to adopt when considering scientific claims. Simply denouncing research as corporate-sponsored doesn't tell you whether that research is any good or not.

"The more a putative answer conforms to one's emotional needs, economic self interest, religious predilections, or political aspirations; the more group support and pressure there is to believe something; and the more those in authority wield their power in support of some answers and against others, the easier it may be to accept some answers and reject others and the harder it becomes for others to dissent," warned Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) in his keynote address at the CSPI conference. The congressman's advice applies not only to journalists and businesspeople, but to activists as well.