Dangerous Liaisons: Conflicts of Interest & Sponsored Research

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Photo Credit: Rita Faria

Big Data, Drugs, and Economic Crisis

The most recent Cambridge Analytica scandal has raised many red flags including the dangers associated with the uses of big data and the apparent manipulation of voters through social media. However, there is another pressing matter that should be discussed as well – the scientific research that allegedly facilitated such practices and the undisclosed Conflicts of Interest (CoI) that may arise from such close connections between scientific research and for-profit companies (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 17 Mar 2018).

Unfortunately, the Cambridge Analytica case is not the only instance of suspected CoI.  In 2017, for example, a newspaper piece stated that Google would hire professors “to defend against regulatory challenges of its market dominance, paying $5,000 to $400,000 for the work” (Mullins & Nicas, July 14, 2017).  Prior to this story, there were news reports that focused on the food industry and accusations of influencing the research being conducted on nutrition and its impact on one’s health (Belluz, Apr 21, 2016). The economic crisis of 2008, which condemned millions of people to homelessness and unemployment all over the globe, was enabled by CoI as well through economists and their close connection to deregulation ideologies and practices (Carrick-Hagenbarth & Epstein, 2012; Ferguson, 21 May 2012). Others have raised concerns regarding the current trend for the private sponsorship of research by wealthy elites with specific political and ideological agendas deciding who gets research money and who does not (Broad, March 15, 2014).

Science, Politics, and Corporations

CoI “may strongly predispose an individual or organization to exploit a professional or an official capacity in some way for personal or organizational benefit. An improper CoI occurs when an individual’s or organization’s interests unduly influence judgments concerning professional responsibility. A bias refers to a preference or an inclination (that may occur from a CoI) that tends to inhibit impartial judgment.” (Claxton, 2007, pp. 558-9). It is fair that researchers are allowed to have economic or political interests and exercise them via activities parallel to academia.  Nonetheless, undisclosed CoI raise doubts about scholars’ scientific independence and autonomy because “failure to disclose CoI may be interpreted as an effort to deliberately mislead the reader” (Goldsmith, 2006, p. 2147).  A study conducted by Campbell et al. (2004, p. 114) explains that CoI may have many faces: faculty members serving as highly paid consultants for a company; channeling research funding from companies belonging to specific scholars to protégés at their departments; or scholars serving as consultants, scientific advisors, equity holders, and owners of companies which also support research being conducted by faculty whom the leader supervised.

Research also has been conducted to examine further if CoI create questionable research practices or should be viewed as an infraction to scientific integrity and ethics (Barr, 2006; Campbell et al. 2004; Edmond, 2008; McHenry & Jureidini, 2008). Most studies on this topic have focused on industry-sponsored medical research, clinical trials, and the impact of commercialization of drugs (Dinan, Allsbrook, Hall, Dhillon, & Sugarman, 2006; Dinan, Weinfurt, et al., 2006; Goldsmith, 2006; Solyom, 2004).  However, it may be questioned whether, in these times of commodified science, stances of CoI will become even more frequent. Especially when the current trend, at least in many European countries, is for researchers’ performance to be assessed according to the social impact created by their research, where the impact is perceived as especially valuable when it occurs with corporations and includes economic activities.

My own study on research misconduct (Faria, 2015 and soon to be published) has shown how scholars perceived undisclosed CoI and interference from commissioners of research on research outputs to be frequent (see also Tromp, 2010). Simultaneously, concerns were raised about a general lack of institutional guidelines and investigating procedures to tackle such situations. Which may mean that, while research integrity and ethics are usually expected to be onuses impending over the individual researcher, some responsibility on research misconduct may also fall over institutions (universities, research organizations, private companies) for pressuring the later, or, at least, not helping to take the pressure away. Nonetheless, seldom are such organizations considered responsible for these types of wrongdoing.

Although, the more official discourses on research misconduct, especially general guidelines set by supra-national entities devoted to scientific policymaking (e.g. the OECD, the European Commission), are usually more concerned with plagiarism or other more traditional forms of fraud, such as forging of data. However, the document analysis I conducted for the same study, showed how CoI or interference over research results from those sponsoring the study, are usually not considered significant enough to regulate. On the contrary, researchers may be asked to adapt to political and economic agendas considered relevant by policy-makers.

Knowledge Societies, Ivory Towers, and the Volkswagen Diesel Scandal

Knowledge is considered an important commodity that can help grow economic productivity by improving consuming processes and products.  The importance of this knowledge can be seen in Europe and the US as well as other countries as they continue to compete to see which country is the most developed “knowledge-driven society”, while researchers are asked to prove the social impact of their efforts. However, upon closer inspection, a series of disjunctions appear regarding the interaction between the actors and structures within the current scientific system in western societies.

For instance, researchers who often find themselves in temporary, low-paid contracts feel the only way to be rewarded professionally is to publish and chase the dollar through funded research (Belluz, Plumer, & Resnick, September 7, 2016). Today, with few exceptions, research institutions and universities are managed by means of “low-cost” mentalities and marketing attitudes, where a number of features seem to be common such as paucity of resources, pressure imposed on scholars (to produce more, faster, with less risk), and a blind eye to eventual problematic connections with the private and public sectors sponsoring scientific endeavors (Lamborelle & Álvarez, 24/11/2016). Finally, the current scientific system seems to be highly motivated to demand high productivity and researchers’ integrity, while struggling to guarantee that the public and users of science do not lose their trust and interest in science (Makri, 19 January  2017).

Some authors, myself included, have already stated the case for research misconduct, including CoI, to be considered as a criminological topic of inquiry.  We have argued that research misconduct along with CoI should be studied using the conceptual framework and methodological tools that have already been established to examine white-collar, occupational, and organizational crime (Adams & Pimple, 2005; Ben-Yehuda, 1986; Croall, 2001; Friedrichs, 2010, 2015; Gutwith & Christiaens, 2015; Hesselmann, Wienefoet, & Reinhart, 2014; Hope & Walters, 2008; Nelken, 2009; Thompson, 2002; Walker & Holtfreter, 2015).  These would be important first steps that could lead to identifying other acts of research misconduct and CoI.  For instance, the Volkswagen Diesel scandal was discovered by a junior research team at West Virginia University (Oehmke, October 23, 2017).

In conclusion, freedom and autonomy in science are important and intimate connections with private companies should be better understood and controlled. Social harms arising from undisclosed relationships between science and industry may well be a relatively new focus for criminological studies and a very urgent one in a time when higher education is often under attack and receiving less and less funding.  The “Ivory Tower” as a symbol of blasé attitudes of scholars towards society may have never existed, but current political and social narratives asking it to be destroyed may well lead to dubious situations where scientific freedom and critical attitudes are considered a luxury that not all can afford.

Rita Faria

Assistant Professor, School of Criminology – Faculty of Law of the University of Porto

International Research Center on Crime, Justice, and Security



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