When medical professionals and scientific researchers publish in a journal or lend their name to supporting a science-based theory, we normally would not think twice about their intentions. After all, they likely entered their field to make a difference, have endured years of schooling, and, by now, undoubtedly have the experience and knowledge to back up their findings.
While most scientists tend to be honest, there is a darker side to the world of scientific research — one in which corporations buy “science” to twist the truth and support their despicable agendas.
Money talks, and it has a way of convincing medical and science professionals to push “facts” that do nothing to serve the greater good and everything to back up companies with broken moral compasses.
How Scientists Become Experts in the Manipulation of Science
Before World War II, the world of science was relatively small; there were approximately 200,000 U.S. scientists and about $70 Million in federal money in 1940. In present day, as the number of scientists has soared into the millions, and the amount of money available has grown into the billions, one would think that there’s enough funding to go around — but that simply isn’t the case.
Boston University published a 4-part series in which they discuss government funded research and who picks up the tab. They state unequivocally that “cuts in federal research funding are threatening to slow the pace of scientific progress.”
An NPR article describes the booms and busts in funding when it comes to science in the U.S. and attributes much of it to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH budget rose steadily between 1998 and 2003, but then decreased by more than 20 percent in 2004. There was a bump in 2009 and 2010 from stimulus funds, and then things went downhill again. Scientists rely on this money to run their labs and without it, projects collapse and people lose their jobs.
“The only people who can survive in this environment are people who are absolutely passionate about what they’re doing and have the self-confidence and competitiveness to just go back again and again and just persistently apply for funding,” said Robert Waterland an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine.
Preying on the knowledge that many scientists are short on funds, corporations have, over time, been able to weasel their way into partnerships built on dishonesty and deceit. Scientists get cold, hard cash to put toward their work (or just their personal bank accounts) and companies can publicly tout the scientific backing behind their claims. It seems like a great deal for everyone involved, but for the rest of the world, it takes away from the credibility of real scientific findings and forces the public to question every statistic, report, or discovery that they come across.
Scientific Lies Told in the Name of Corporate Profit and Greed
The lengths some companies will go to in order to make money may come as a shock to some people. For others, however, they have been hearing about these incidents for years.
During his year working for The New Yorker in 1993, respected British journalist Alexander Chancellor wrote a piece with the sub-head, “Behind every seemingly futile piece of medical research lurks some vested commercial interest.” He questioned research published that week in the Journal of the American Medical Association that seemed to assert the claim that men under 55 suffering from vertex baldness run an unusually high risk of heart disease. The Journal purported that the balder you were, the greater the risk, and even published a table of 24 numbered drawings to show different types of hair loss. Chancellor wondered what would make anyone want to embark “on such a weird and apparently futile piece of research.”
He found his answer in not who conducted the research (Boston University School of Public Health), but who paid for it: The Upjohn Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Upjohn Company name may not be immediately recognizable, but Rogaine, the product they sell, is. Rogaine is the brand name of a manufactured hair-growth stimulant called minoxidil. Under the radar, the Upjohn Company has been netting $3.7 Billion in annual sales.
The New York Times wrote that “Upjohn was concerned about the possibility of reports of adverse effects like heart attacks among minoxidil users, and then [tried] to determine whether such cardiac problems reflected use of the medication or a general risk factor.”
This problem, however, is not just limited to companies trying sell hair-growth stimulants. Corruption in science has leaked into some of the biggest issues of our time: global warming, tobacco, and asbestos. Companies that make money off of dangerous substances try everything they can to manage bad publicity and create PR spins that aim to change the conversation — or at least create doubt in the public mind.
In the film “Merchants of Doubt,” based on the book of the same name, we are given a look at corporate-paid experts and learn why the public is so open to believing them.
“We see this [doubt movement] growing out of tobacco — for 50 years, people were able to create doubt where there was no doubt,” said Robert Kenner, the film’s director. “They were kind of masterful at it.”
Kenner speaks with Peter Sparber, who was a Tobacco Institute Vice President in the 1980s. Sparber took great pride in his ability to create doubt, citing “research” conducted by scientists that had been hired. Sparber is quoted:
“He helped slow down legislation on a slow burning cigarette. He was able to convince people it was not cigarettes that cause house fires, it was couches. He was able to make a law that [requires] chemicals to be put in these couches. It turned out it didn’t prevent fires and it also caused cancer.”
Kenner also blames the media for providing a platform for paid scientists to create doubt and delay change. Many news outlets and talk shows allow experts to share their expert opinions, which works to confuse the public and create skepticism.
Mesothelioma Victims Attacked by “Rented White Coats”
In “Science for Sale,” a recent 4-part investigative series published jointly by VICE News and the Center for Public Integrity, we are given a closer look at the increasing influence of industry-backed research — especially when it comes to asbestos and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer caused directly by exposure to asbestos.
The 1st part of the series, “Meet the ‘Rented White Coats’ Who Defend Toxic Chemicals,” provides an inside glimpse into the mindset of the individuals and companies who try to buy science. Evan Nelson, a corporate defense lawyer for asbestos companies, came up with a scientific theory that he could use to win asbestos lawsuits. He was frustrated with the argument that asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, so he looked through some scientific journals and decided that tobacco could also be a cause.
Nelson e-mailed Peter Valberg — a former professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and current principal at the environmental consulting firm Gradient Corporation — and told him he wanted to collaborate to publish “several key, revolutionary articles” linking the radioactive particles in cigarette smoke to evidence that people exposed to radiation had higher rates of mesothelioma.
The article, however, notes an obvious problem with Nelson’s “science” saying, “Researchers for decades have exhaustively analyzed data on the health of hundreds of thousands of smokers. Since 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General has summarized the findings of study after study, none of which shows evidence that tobacco causes mesothelioma.”
That fact did not stop Nelson and Valberg, though. Instead, Valberg said he found Nelson’s theory “very intriguing” and that he was willing to share it in peer-reviewed journals. He agreed to write the 1st of 3 articles, offering Nelson a 10 percent discount, and also said that he would adopt Nelson’s theory as an expert witness in lawsuits again mesothelioma victims.
Nelson’s dishonesty was eventually uncovered and he lost his job. Today, he even acknowledges that science used in asbestos lawsuits can be unreliable.
“In one way, I’m glad that I’m out of asbestos litigation because I think there’s a lot of corruption in it,” said Nelson. “I’ve heard other attorneys telling experts ‘This is the opinion I’d want you to have.’ “
The suffering of mesothelioma victims is due to the fact that corporations knew about the dangers of asbestos decades ago, but hid the information from the general public. It is unforgivable that even now, they work so hard to create doubt and delay compensation for victims by buying “science” to suit their needs.
Buying Science Needs to Stop
In 2015, Pew Research Center shared results of a survey that found 79% of adults say that science has made life easier for most people and a majority is positive about science’s impact on the quality of health care, food, and the environment. However, it also showed that many people are stepping up to question science, especially with certain hot button topics like GMOs and climate change.
We must continue that questioning, while also learning to spot sketchy scientific findings backed by corporate sponsors. By calling out these underhanded tactics, we are telling corporations and scientists-for-hire that we know what they are doing — and it’s not okay.