Science in the service of “profit maximisation”?

Increasing influence on science

Rl. Research findings affect commercial decisions and even far-reaching political determinations. If such findings are partial, they may actually cause harm. A striking example for this mechanism was the medical research about smoking. Only after decades, it had been revealed that important projects had been secretly financed by the tobacco industry. Public health policies were significantly influenced and hence effective information campaigns about the consequences of smoking were. This still causes severe health implications for millions of smokers. Researchers who had been pointing at the dangers of smoking in those days had been purposefully marginalized or discredited.
The tobacco industry in contrast went nearly unpunished for their activities!
In his book “Gekaufte Forschung. Wissenschaft im Dienste der Konzerne” (Bribed Research. Science in the service of corporations) the economist Christian Kreiss* provides many more examples like that of the tobacco industry (p. 22ff.) and analyses the consequences of biased research. He considers the question to what degree economic interests may influence content and results of research. His experience in university and higher education politics enables him also to trace hidden influence mechanisms. Kreiss focuses the widespread practice of third party funding in pharmaceutical and car manufacturing industries, education, financial, insurance, biogenetics, and media corporations. At the same time, he explains the influence of financially strong corporate groups on science via private endowments, sponsored professorships and the allocation of research funding.

  • What do research results of a certain professor of medicine mean who found out that eating chocolate might be good for your heart? This could be true. However, what if this study had been funded by Mars Inc., and this very same professor proceeded to occupy the Mars Chair in Developmental Nutrition at the University of California? (p. 73)
  • Better known is the case of Arpad Pusztai/Monsanto. Bill Clinton intervened directly on behalf of biotech corporation Monsanto by phoning Tony Blair in 1998 in order to suppress genetic engineering research results. The researcher Arpad Pusztai found out that the feeding of genetically engineered potatoes had a negative impact on rats. Supported by his employers he introduced his findings to the British public. These same employers, however, asked him to hand in his lab keys after the phone conversation between Clinton and Blair.  A little later, his research materials had disappeared from the lab after a burglary. Others have confirmed Pusztai´s findings in the meantime, though (p. 66ff.). Surely, not all corporations will go that far when their business interests are affected.
  • The fact that “ghostwriters” write many scientific papers is less spectacular. Employees of pharmaceutical companies for instance conduct studies that are officially published under the names of “independent” scientists. (p. 62f.)
  • Scientists who did research on medication paid for by the pharmaceutical industry, which then produce unexpected results, ran into big problems. They had to sign confidentiality agreements even though in some instances their results suggested potentially consequential health damages of the medicines. (p. 53ff.)
  • More and more corporations proceeded to provide schools with teaching materials. Due to what is referred to as an “opening” of the schools these materials are actually getting used in classes. But what can one expect from teaching materials about “public transport”, sponsored by a car manufacturing company? What would “healthy nutrition” look like seen through the lens of a leading chocolate producer? (S. 133ff.) Kreiss addresses these problems in his book, too. In connection with the increasing influence of electronic media and their contents in kindergartens and schools, he refers to Manfred Spitzer´s distinguished publications. (S. 134)
  • In addition to such more obvious examples, Kreiss also explains many more subtle influencing strategies used to promote economic self-interests in the name of science. Among other things, these include biasing research foci, allocation of funds, the appointment of professorship, or the manipulation of public endowments.

Kreiss concludes: “The consequences of these insights are obvious: financial interests have to stay out of science, they make mischief here. Schooling and higher education are the public society´s business, not corporate lobbyists´. One can only hope that in the long run research will be conducted increasingly for the sake of the commonality and that trust in science may grow once again.” (S. 190) He ends with several ideas how to counter the massive influence of private interests in colleges and universities so that absurdities like a lecture theatre “Aldi-Süd” (a branch of the German “Aldi”-Discounter in Switzerland) or “EasyCredit” may be prevented in future.    •

*    Christian Kreiss teaches finance and economic policies at Aalen College.

Christian Kreiss. Gekaufte Forschung. Wissenschaft im Dienste der Konzerne. Europa Verlag. Berlin 2015. 978-3-944305-72-1