Corporate funding of research.

Many of us are suspicious of health and safety claims based on research funded by corporations that get rich off public confidence in the health and safety of their products. I don’t really trust manufacturers of drugs or genetically modified foods to tell me that they are safe. I also would feel better hearing that an oil spill is no threat to life or environment from someone other than the company that spilled the oil. (Many people seem to have made one inexplicable exception to this rule, which I will mention in the postscript.)

Further, when corporations fund research projects or labs, they gain control over what information is published. The scientists involved may have enough integrity to conduct rigorous research, but unwanted results are likely to be suppressed, especially if they will hurt the bottom line. This may be justified by claiming that only “useful” data need be published, but negative data can also be useful and can avoid wasted money and energy. If one researcher finds that something doesn’t work, publishing that data can help others avoid the same mistakes. Of course, researchers do share data, but some studies are also suppressed. Publication of misleading data and suppression of useful data are two possible hazards of corporations funding research that will affect their bottom line.

On the other hand, if corporations are the ones to benefit from research, it seems they should bear the cost of supporting labs, scientists, and related endeavors. Of course, some research is in the public interest, and I believe the public should fund it, which may be the topic of another blog. To avoid obvious conflicts of interest in research, companies should not be permitted to hire and promote researchers directly. Funding should go in to a pool and be dispersed anonymously to research labs, scientists, and universities. For profit labs could still exist, but researchers should not be beholden to a specific entity. It was not that long ago that much university research was conducted in this manner. In that sense my proposal is regressive, not progressive.

Postscript: When people get sick, many of them demand the latest drug available, even if it hasn’t been tested thoroughly. They seem to feel that their suffering from the disease is always going to be worse than the effects of the drug. I recently had a student (not a medical student) argue vehemently with me that no one had ever died during a drug trial. For those who know anything about drug trials, this over confidence is baffling, but I fear many share his optimism regarding the safety and effectiveness of experimental drugs. If you don’t know this already, let me tell you that drug testing is there for a reason; not every drug tested turns out to be safe and effective.

7 thoughts on “Corporate funding of research.

  1. Tracy Morris 02/12/2011 / 11:46 am

    Just curious: is your student’s claim, about no one ever dying from a drug trial, true?? I seem to recall some rather starkly opposing facts, although at the moment, I don’t have time to look up the details.

  2. ethicsbeyondcompliance 02/12/2011 / 12:20 pm

    In the US, the Jesse Gelsinger case is quite famous (or infamous). It is the textbook case of conflict of interest in research. The researcher conducting the research had a financial stake in the outcome and was accused of violating the basics of informed consent ( Earlier this year, Pfizer agreed to pay a settlement to the families of four children who died in a drug trial in Nigeria ( There are other cases, of course, but these two have gotten a lot of attention. Exporting research to developing countries is an issue of great ethical debate. The opportunities for exploitation and coercion are great (if someone is destitute, the offer of any kind of medical care or money cannot really be refused).

  3. Tracy Morris 02/12/2011 / 12:30 pm

    Thank you — agree completely with your summary last sentence. The case I’m recalling was in the U.S. and also received a lot of media attn. But perhaps it was a drug out of trial? A young, college-aged man died from a prescription drug, and I thought he was enrolled in a trial.

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