Skepdude

From the creator of Video Skepdude

On Scientific honesty

As you may have noticed over and over in this blog, I tend to place lots of confidence on the scientific community. Whenever extraordinary claims are made, I require extraordinary evidence. The only acceptable evidence, especially for serious matters, is the scientific kind. Scientific studies, which must meet certain standards, and the venerable peer review process are the cornerstones of Science as a process.

But, that does not mean that we should blindly believe a scientist, solely on the basis that he/she is a scientist. There was a recent article on the NYTimes, which talked about the Virginia Commonwealth University, which apparently has a strict contract with Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest tobacco company which forbids :

professors from publishing the results of their studies, or even talking about them, without Philip Morris’s permission. If “a third party,” including news organizations, asks about the agreement, university officials have to decline to comment and tell the company. Nearly all patent and other intellectual property rights go to the company, not the university or its professors.

But the contract, a copy of which The New York Times obtained under the Virginia Freedom of Information law, is highly unusual and raises questions about how far universities will go in search of scarce research dollars to enhance their standing. It also brings a new dimension to the already divisive debate on many campuses over whether it is appropriate for universities to accept tobacco money for research.

There are two issues at hand here. One is the funding necessities that most universities face. Somehow those bills have to be paid. As such I don’t see a problem with their accepting a contract which could be restrictive, in regards to the research conducted with money from that specific grant. The second issue is academic freedom (and I don’t mean the kind being championed by moron legislators around the country currently).

Say for example that a university gets a huge grant from a tobacco company in order to run a couple of research projects on the health effects of smoking. Say Prof. A, B and C are conducting the work. Say that Prof. D is also running the same kind of research but with other money. What if Prof. D’s research is not good news for the company that just gave the university a truck load of money? What kind of pressure would she find herself under from the Administration? Is it inconceivable that she will be forbidden from publishing her work, out of fear of loosing the big grant? No, of course it is not inconceivable. In fact, I would say it is quite probable.

About a dozen researchers and research ethicists from other universities were astonished at the restrictions in the contract, when they were told about it.

“When universities sign contracts with these covenants, they are basically giving up their ethos, compromising their values as a university,” said Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts University who is an expert on corporate influence on medical research. “There should be no debate about having a sponsor with control over the publishing of results.”

Stanton A. Glantz, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine who has lobbied for banning tobacco money on campuses, said, “University administrators who are desperate for money will basically do anything they have to for money.”

And apparently, Virginia Commonwealth University violated its own rules when signing the contract.

Virginia Commonwealth’s guidelines for industry-sponsored research state, “University faculty and students must be free to publish their results.” The guidelines also say the university must retain all patent and other intellectual property rights from sponsored research.

Both of these provisions are being violated by the contract they have signed with Phillip Morris USA.

The contract also includes a longer than usual time for Philip Morris to review any possible publications by the researchers for potential patent or other proprietary problems — 120 days, with the option to continue for 60 days more. Again, this violates university guidelines, which call for reviews of no more than 90 days.

And they seem to be keeping it hush hush within the University as well.

At Virginia Commonwealth, few professors appeared to know about the contract; when told about it, a number of them said they were concerned about its secretiveness.

“It’s a controversial area, and I personally prefer transparency,” said Richard P. Wenzel, chairman of the department of internal medicine at the university’s medical school, who had not heard of the contract before a reporter’s call.

Dan Ream, the president of the Faculty Senate, said he, too, knew nothing about the contract.

“It hasn’t come up as an issue of debate in the Faculty Senate at all,” said Mr. Ream, who works in the university’s library. “I’m highly committed to open access to information. That’s one of the tenets of librarianship.”

A tenured scientist at Virginia Commonwealth, who would not be interviewed for attribution because he said he feared retribution against his junior colleagues, called the contract’s restrictions, especially the limitations on publication, “completely unacceptable in the research world.”

Thank goodness, there are checks in place to reduce the possibility of such influences. Study authors are required to specifically identify any conflicts of interest. And furthermore, the study must be replicated by other scientists before it’s conclusions are accepted. But that applies to the scientific world, not the public.

If a sensational study saying that smoking is not so bad after all will make the news within the hour. All follow up studies that say the first study was bogus may not even be mentioned, thus leaving the public under the assumption that there is in fact scientific evidence where none exists.

So, what’s the morals of this story? Stay away from arguments from authority. Scientist are just as prone to make mistakes, or commit fraud as other people. That is why the peer review process was instituted to begin with. But, don’t come away from this entry thinking conspiracy, and vowing never to believe science again. Science is the only system out there, that I am aware off, that has controls in place to catch such things and to correct itself. That is why Science has been so successful and has given us so much.

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May 22, 2008 - Posted by | Critical Thinking, Science | ,

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