Does science suffer from institutionalised corruption?

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I don’t remember too many things from my time at my medical school, but one thing that has stuck in my mind were the names ‘Hill and Doll’. The reason being that Austin Bradford Hill and Richard Doll were the scientists who discovered the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Trust me when I tell you these two researchers had, and still have, iconic status in the scientific community. So great was their contribution to science and medicine adjudged to be, that they were rewarded with knighthoods.

Sir Richard Doll died last year, and this week it came to light that during the 1980s he was worked as a ‘consultant’ to the Monsanto during a time he was investigating the herbicide made by this company – Agent Orange. Sir Richard was actually making $1500 (�£750) a day from Monsanto ” not an inconsiderable sum, especially back in the 80s.

Now there is nothing illegal about these sorts of commercial arrangements between industry and researchers. Today, though, there is much more pressure on researchers to declare such links. In Sir Richard’s defence, in the 20 years ago it was not usual for such arrangements to be declared.

However, another scientist with a special interest in Agent Orange, Professor Lennart Hardell of University Hospital Orebro in Sweden, claims that Sir Richard downplayed the risks of Agent Orange, despite there being genuine cause for concern. In the light of this, Dr Richard’s failure to disclose his links with Monsanto might seem naïve to some, and positively corrupt to others.

And there’s more. Another of Sir Richard’s pet chemicals was vinyl chloride (used to make PVC). Documents reveal that Sir Richard was also in the pay of companies such as ICI and Dow Chemicals who made this substance. This was not declared, either. And would you believe that while vinyl chloride was also vindicated by Sir Richard, the World Health Organisation, apparently, has a different take on this chemical.

This is all a bit distasteful, I reckon, but what I personally find also difficult to swallow is the unquestioning way Sir Richard’s peers have leapt to his defence. For instance, Professor Sir Richard Peto, another cancer expert and one-time colleague of Doll’s, claims that his undeclared financial links with industry do not in any sense suggest that his work was biased.

So, let me get this straight. A researcher gives a judgment on a chemical that some other researchers believe does not reflect the science, and also fails to declare his financial links with a company who have a vested interest in that chemical. What do you mean, there’s no suggestion of bias?!

This week also saw other mucky revelations concerning money and ‘science’, this time on the other side of the Atlantic. This concerns Pearson ‘Trey’ Sunderland III, a former employee of the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the USA. The NIH is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and is the primary agency responsible for conducting and supporting medical research in the States. Part of Sunderland’s job was to oversee the public-private research collaborations of pharmaceutical agents. It has come to light that Mr Sunderland was paid something in the order of $300,000 by the drug company Pfizer ” a company making drugs tested in research which Mr Sunderland was employed to ‘oversee’. On Friday, Sunderland pleaded guilty to taking illegal payments, and he is due to be sentenced later this month. Mind you, I’ve not heard a peep about any action that might be taken against Pfizer.

So what are to make of all this? First of all, I’m not so cynical to believe that all researchers on whom we rely for honest, impartial opinion are on the take. And even those who are may not be biased as a result. But, while researchers may not be biased by payments from industry, it would seem quite naive to assume there is no potential here. Sometimes, I reckon the facts speak for themselves.

Another thing I remember from medical school is being told that when doctors take up a professorial post, their ability to earn money from private practice is seriously curtailed. I always thought that putting personal wealth second to scientific endeavour was a thoroughly noble act. Now I’m more aware of how some professors make their money, I’m really not so sure.

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