23 Motives for Scientific Studies

The public does not usually think about the scientific funding that goes into the new information they are presented with. The term “scientific” alludes to credibility and people tend to believe what they hear when it comes to new studies. Checking sources simply does not peak the interest of the average reader/listener and thus, is often overlooked.  As a result, the biases of scientists, large companies, and political parties seep into “factual evidence” that is then redistributed among the largely unaware public. The public is not entirely at fault for this, as biases are not always clearly stated and when they are, they tend to buried in hard to find places. Clearly stating conflicts of interest would be entirely contradictory to the objectives of the funders . If everyone knew the exterior  motives behind studies, it would ruin the opportunity for deception and material profit. For this reason, it can be difficult to determine if a conflict of interest is at work in a particular study. An extremely important idea to keep in mind is that profit can outweigh the health of the general public when it comes to research. Some key examples of this are the use of lead in gasoline in the mid 20th century, myths about dehydration, the climate change denial movement with regard to politicians, and controversial studies done about  the health effects of smoking tobacco products.

The scientific community is well aware of how biases can inadvertently, or worse, overtly ruin the scientific process and its ultimate goal of the search for truth. The government and other scientific journals often require scientists to publish the potential biases they have (Author Responsibilities, 2015 ). When a publication is called into question for bias, another study can be done by an unbiased researcher to see if the same result of the first study is attained. If a different result is found, this spells  disaster for the career of the scientist who published biased and false research findings. Purposely manipulating data for individual gain is thought to be a “mortal sin” of sorts in the scientific community. That being said, scientists can still fall victim to subconscious biases and make honest mistakes. In cases where is this could be an issue, double blind studies where neither the subjects of the research, nor the researchers themselves know the main objectives of the experiment are used (Double-blind study, n.d.). The effects of individual biases can be limited by having scientists work in groups. Further precautions against the potential biases of these groups as a whole can be taken by having two groups work independently of each other on the same experiment or field of research. However, this method can be quite expensive, as the funder has to pay two teams to do the same thing (DeGrasse Tyson & Gladwell, 2015).

The principle motivator for bias usually comes down money. Scientists need money to do research. The more interesting and groundbreaking the results, the more likely scientists are to receive a nice paycheck and be considered for future studies. Some scientists fall victim to this pressure and alter their results to make them more exciting or convincing or to align them with the views of their funder . In addition, money can be used to buy or suppress results that could potentially lead to a company making money or losing money, respectively. A few decades ago it was much easier for people with money to influence results, as there were not as many regulations in place to prevent this from happening.

One historical example of a scientist pursuing truth in the face of adversity is that of Dr. Claire Patterson. Patterson proved that the lead used in gasoline was ramping up the amounts of lead in the atmosphere and that the levels were 1,000 times higher than they were before humans started pumping the element in to the air (Braga, et al., 2014). As a result of this publication, Ethyl, a major gasoline and lead company, contacted Patterson about working for them. Patterson explains the result of the meeting best by exclaiming they tried to “buy me out through research support that would yield results favorable to their cause.” Because he refused to work for Ethyl and continued to expose companies like Ethyl, Patterson saw his funding from the industry disappear overnight and, ironically, his contract with Public Health Services was not renewed (Braga, et al., 2014). Patterson had to battle against the lead industry funded scientist Robert Kehoe in front of Congress in the 1960s to get laws passed which would eventually restrict the use of lead in gasoline. Patterson’s work had immense implications on public health as “blood-lead levels in Americans aged 1-74 had declined 78 percent between 1978 and 1991.” (Kitman, 2000). The difficulties Patterson faced and the purchase of scientific authority by Ethyl are excellent examples of how funding can hide the truth and hinder ones ability to do science correctly.

Dr. Patterson’s work was made much easier because the government stood by him after the fuel industry pulled his funding. The US government plays a huge role in scientific research, as they spent $135.4 billion on research and development in 2015 (2015 Budget, 2014). However, even government-funded research can be influenced by conflicts of interest. The political party that controls Washington, controls the flow money and as a result, has a big say in what the budget will be. Politicians will ridicule ideas or support them so that what they want to be focused on will receive funding . Politicians are also influenced by money in that they need to keep their campaign donors happy so that they can get reelected.

In 2011 Republican Senator Tom Coburn took a study about how shrimp are affected by bacteria that proliferate due to global warming and ridiculed it as a waste of money (Vaidyanathan, 2015). Coburn referred to the study out of context by only mentioning that the NSF spent $560,000 and that the study included a shrimp running on a treadmill (Tiberi, 2011). Coburn attempted to make a practical and relevant study seem foolish and it worked quite well, as much of the public is only aware of shrimp running on the treadmill and not what the purpose of the study. It is important to note that Tom Coburn has gone on record saying, “I am a global warming denier. I don’t deny that.” (Sheppard, 2013). It would make sense for Coburn to try and dissuade the NSF from funding research that could produce findings that do not align with his political stance. Another example of a Republican politician trying to ridicule climate change and potentially decrease government funding on studies that address the issue, is that of James Inhofe . Senator Inhofe remarked, “Because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, do you know what this is?” The Senator then produced a fist-sized snowball as if to offer proof that climate change is a myth (Rieger & Chacko, 2015). Another good example of conflicts of interests at work in politics is that of Republican Senator Larry Bucshon speaking out against President Obama’s plan to reduce carbon emissions by 30% by 2030 (TP Video Channel, 2014).

To get an inkling as to why these politicians might deny something that is well agreed upon among scientists, one should direct their attention to towards the companies who support these men come election time. Bucshon’s largest donor in 2014 was Murray Energy and his third largest was Peabody Energy (Money in Politics, 2014). According to Murray Energy (2015), the corporation produces approximately 65 million tons of coal each year. In addition, Peabody Energy (2014) is the worlds largest private sector coal company. Koch Industries, one of the largest private companies in the US that started off focusing on oil, is a top ten donor for each of the Republican Senators mentioned in the above paragraph (Money in Politics, 2014). These companies all contribute to global warming through the emission of greenhouse gases and would suffer hefty loses if laws were passed to limit these emissions. The companies attempt to prevent these restrictions by purchasing the support of politicians who can then limit the funding climatologists receive.

Another example of how monetary interests can outweigh public health interests is that of Gatorade’s relentless campaign against dehydration. Gatorade, a company that relies on the sale of sports drinks, would have incentive to sponsor research on the benefits of drinking lots of fluids during exercise. Noakes & Speedy (2006) declare, “In 1996 the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), an organization whose only two “platinum” sponsors are Gatorade and the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI), produced its modified guidelines, which promoted the concept that subjects should drink “as much as tolerable” during exercise.” According the ACSM’s website (2015), the group is the world’s largest sports medicine and exercise science organization and thus, and capable of giving Gatorade a solid backing to run their “quench your thirst” advertisement campaign. In 2007 the ACSM updated its guidelines and eliminated this phrase, but the new guidelines still strongly encourage athletes to prehydrate (Sawka et al., 2007). This advice goes against that of many other experts in the field, as they recommend drinking according to thirst. Cohen (2012) takes care to mention, “Three of the six authors of the updated guidance declared major financial conflicts of interest.” In other words, they had strong financial ties to Gatorade.

Gatorade largely ignores or downplays the effects of hyponatremia, “a condition that occurs when the level of sodium in your blood is abnormally low” (Hyponatremia, n.d). Cohen (2012) cautions that there have been 16 recorded deaths and that 1,600 people have become critically ill due to hyponatremia during distance running events. Gatorade Sports Science Institute responded to this problem by releasing a video concerning the risks of Hyponatremia. The speaker in the video, Nina Stachenfeld, was one of the authors of the updated ACSM guidelines who declared a conflict of interest. In this case Stachenfel (2014) states, “Hyponatremia is not very common, so the typical athlete does not have to concern him or herself with hyponatremia too much.” However, in a study with no financial ties to the sports drink industry Rosner and Kirven (2006) warn, “hyponatremia has been stated to be one of the most common medical complications of long-distance racing and is an important cause of race-related fatalities.” Clearly the conflict of interest present when Gatorade sponsors studies has an effect on the results of these studies when compared to the results of studies that are independent of the company. While it cannot be proven that Gatorade has funded research that has led to the deaths of a number of athletes, it can certainly be said that companies like Gatorade have greatly affected the general public’s ideas about what it means to be hydrated.

A final example of how money can create conflicts of interest and produce bad science is that of the tobacco industry. Before the 1950s smoking was hardly considered as a detriment to one’s health and had not yet been linked to lung cancer. By 1960 however, Proctor (2011) alerts us that one out of every three doctors believed there was a strong medical case against the use of cigarettes. Obviously these doctors were correct as it is known today that lung cancer kills 1.5 million  in the world every year. It is estimated that 6 million people will die from smoking cigarettes in 2015, this is roughly one person every five seconds (Proctor, 2011). With evidence mounting in the 1960s and increasing in the 70s, the German tobacco industry responded by funding extensive scientific research on smoking and health. This research, which was clearly effected by funding bias, “influenced scientific and public opinion in Germany. This influence likely undermined efforts to control tobacco use.” The Tobacco industry placed the monetary value of their companies ahead of human lives. Their research contributed to the fact that “In Germany, tobacco is the single most important cause of illness and premature death.” (Grüning, Gilmore & McKee 2006). In another study, Turner and Spilich (1997) came to the conclusion “that researchers acknowledging tobacco industry support were considerably more likely to arrive at a conclusion favorable to the tobacco industry than were researchers not acknowledging industry support.” It is important to note that this last study was done less than 20 years ago. Tuner and Spilich’s work shows that the tobacco industry still attempts to purchase results. These results will potentially cause the public to look upon its products in a more positive light, even though the negative effects smoking has on people are very well known.

Although some of the examples listed above may seem alarming, one should realize that these are special cases and not the norm. The process of getting research funded is an extensive one and according to the National Institutes of Health, it usually takes 8-10 months just to write a proposal for funding (Grants Process, 2014). After the proposal is submitted, scientists have to wait to hear word if their projects are selected. Often times, many different individuals or teams are applying for the same grants. As a result of this competitive nature, the government is less likely to fund projects with obvious conflicts of interest. In addition, if a study is produced that has very promising results, more attention will be placed on that study and it will often times be reviewed by unbiased scientists in the field. Another more extensive option is too fund a separate group of scientists to redo the experiment or study and see if they come to the same results as the first team did. Specifically in the field of psychology this often takes place through single blind or double blind studies so that conflicts of interests amongst the researchers or subjects do not alter the results of the study.

Even though the science community does a very good job of preventing monetary conflicts of interest from playing a role in scientific results, some studies are still impacted. When a new study comes out that seems questionable or strongly backs a particular product or industry as a whole, one should look at the results of that study with a skeptical eye . It is unlikely that the general public will go to the lengths of tracking down the funders of a study or looking for examples of declared conflicts of interests, as they can be hard to find. One suggestion for making monetary conflicts of interest more transparent is requiring that they be shown in a place that is easier to find rather than in the middle or at the end of study. In the field of politics, politicians from all parties should announce what companies or industries they receive the most funding from when they discuss issues that will have effects on the profitability of their top donors. In addition, term limits for Politicians would prevent them from worrying about being reelected and therefore, prevent them from feeling like they have to please their top donors.

The examples from the mid-nineties of the lead and tobacco industries are dark parts of the history of science that need to be remembered in order to prevent similar events from occurring today or in the future. The example of the sports drink industry and particularly, the $13 Billion dollar valued company Gatorade, (which is now owned by Pepsi) serves to show that money can still influence what scientific evidence is presented to public and in turn, impact public health (Utermohlen, 2013). Finally, the examples of politicians supporting the climate change denial movement shows that funding will most likely play a large in the future of science. The general public and scientific community alike must continue their fight in preventing funding conflicts of interest from producing bad science that sometimes have grave effects on public health.


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