Aug 07 2015

Industry Conflicts of Interest

This is an old issue but seems to have been heating up in the last decade – concern over ties between academia and industry. The concern is legitimate, but often overblown, and can easily be abused to justify an unfair witch hunt.

A Nature article published yesterday discusses a recent round of accusations against scientists who support the technology of genetic modification. Before I discuss this article directly, let me give some background.

There is the potential for useful and productive collaboration between industry and academia. Academics are the experts and they have knowledge and resources that could benefit industry. Meanwhile, to put it simply, industry has the money. They can fund research, labs, and educational programs. Academics often survive on meager pay, living grant to grant.

For example, industry may pay academics for the privilege of picking their brains – advising them on potential future uses of technology. There is no conflict of interest here, and it’s fair to say that everyone wins, including the public.

There are also times when the interests of industry and science align. For example, in my own field of medicine, when a new drug becomes available for a previously untreated disease, it is in everyone’s best interest that patients with the disease learn about the new treatment. There is no conflict of interest, because everyone’s interests are aligned.

But of course these waters must be tread with care, and this is why greater attention is being paid to such relationships within academia. The bottom line is that industry tends to look after its own interests. It seems to be baked into their culture. When funding public outreach they can’t help but to give some helpful advice to academics, or save them some work by providing professionally made slides.

This is a gray zone where I think there is nothing truly nefarious going on, just some sloppy procedure that might compromise the appearance of full academic independence. These types of issues are easily handled by educating academics on how to deal with their industry connections.

First, we need full disclosure and transparency. This is essentially the standard today – every time I do anything (any talk, publication, or association) I have to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. It is now fully standard procedure.

Further, I think academics need to know how to educate and deal with their industry contacts. We may be dealing at times with either sales or PR people who have no idea about academic integrity. We need to teach them where the lines are. “No, you can’t give me helpful suggestions about the content of my talk.” “No thanks, I’ll use my own slides.”

And of course there is the potential for industry ties that represent a genuine conflict of interest. If someone is making hundreds of thousands of dollars from a company and is an outspoken defender of the company, their products, or whatever, then they are de facto an employee and representative of that company, and should not present themselves as an independent academic.

Companies have been found to explore essentially every possible way of putting their thumb on the scientific scale – ghost writing white papers, starting stealth industry journals, hiding research whose results they don’t like, and paying academics to be their spokespeople. These kinds of activities need to be exposed and either stopped for fully disclosed.

This complex reality creates an opportunity for anyone who has a disagreement with the findings of science to play what we now call the “shill card.” Anyone who has an opinion you don’t like is a shill for whoever’s interests align with that opinion. This isn’t always industry, but can also be the government, or even academia itself.

Think of the anti-AGW rhetoric – in this case the opinion of scientists goes against industry, so their attackers charge that they are just trying to get more grant money. In alternative medicine, the Big Pharma shill card is a given, but interestingly the chronic Lyme advocates can’t play this card, because they are advocating chronic antibiotics for their fake disease. So their boogeyman is the insurance industry. The antivaxxers simultaneously rage about big pharma and government conspiracies.

These accusations extend regularly to science communicators. As a skeptical activist, my job is to understand and explain the science as best I can. I take whatever position I think is supported by the science. From that perspective I am not pro-vaccine, pro-global warming, or pro-GMO – I am pro-science. Neither am I anti-bigfoot or anti-UFO, the science just doesn’t support the claims of proponents.

Skeptical activists, however, are routinely dismissed as being industry or government shills (all without a shred of evidence, I would add). This goes as far (in true conspiracy theory fashion) as the accusation that the entire skeptical movement is one giant astroturf campaign by industry, and that none of us are real skeptics.

Let’s take a look at the recent Nature article and hopefully put it into a bit more context. The article discusses preliminary results of a freedom of information act (FOIA) request made of a number of agricultural scientists who openly support the technology of genetic modification. This was clearly an abuse of FOIA to launch into a witch hunt, looking for anything that can be spun into a conflict of interest.

This was similar to the tactics of AGW deniers who trolled through the e-mails of climate researchers looking for the “smoking gun” that they were lying. In the end, they came up nothing, but they wasted a lot of scientists’ time, energy, and resources.

Anti-GMO activists just know in their bones that anyone defending evil GMOs must be on the take from Monsanto. That is their narrative, and it’s powerful in their minds. So far, they have come up with nothing – no smoking gun.

One of the targets of their FOIA request was Kevin Folta, who is a friend of mine and recurrent guest on the SGU. He falls squarely into the innocent connections between academia and industry camp. Most of his research and academic activities are independently funded. He has received small amounts of money from Monsanto and other companies essentially for travel reimbursement when he gives talks about GMOs. He has never taken any money personally – all of it goes for science education and outreach.

He also fully discloses all of this with complete transparency. He has nothing to hide. In his case his academic research involves agriculture, and so he has to work with farmers and seed growers because that is the actual focus of his research. He cannot hide away in his lab to avoid the appearance of industry connections.

His case is the perfect example, as far as I can tell, of an innocent, fully transparent, and mutually productive relationship between academia and industry. They don’t tell him what to say, they don’t control his research, and he doesn’t even profit personally from any of it.

Despite this reality, get ready for the anti-GMO crowd to use these disclosures to attack Kevin for being a Monsanto shill. I would be shocked if any of them have the intellectual honesty to treat the situation fairly.


We need to properly balance academic freedom and integrity with the need to fund academia and research. Whoever is providing the funding – government, industry, even charities, they will try to put their thumb on the scale in exchange for their money.

Academics are keenly aware of these issues, and in recent years have been taking effective steps to root out genuine conflicts, while using transparency to mitigate apparent (but not real) conflicts.

Reality, as always, is messy. This provides the opportunity for conspiracy theorists and those with an anti-science agenda to exploit the messiness to promote their narrative and confuse the public. Creating fear and confusion is easy. Explaining a complex and nuanced situation is difficult. They therefore have the advantage.

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