The rise in the dominance of financial and commercial interests sponsoring science on one hand, and an increasingly ideological agenda of government-funded research on the other hand, are thwarting and clouding science’s role to promote insight, innovation and progress. Decline and loss of credibility is the natural consequence when science is used as a means to advance corporate interests or to push ideological agendas. Without a change in course, this decline will endanger American scientific leadership.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center in Washington showed that scientists view many important issues differently than the rest of the population. For example, 88 percent of scientists view genetically modified food as safe versus only 37 percent of the general population — a gap of 51 percent. How did we get to this point?
In 2005, Stanford professor Paul Ioannidis published a now-famous paper, which argued that most research findings are false. The greater the financial interests in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true. Furthermore, review groups like Cochrane can only review published research. So if there is nothing but biased research published, the meta-analysis will be biased as well. Whenever there is heavy financial interest in a certain outcome, biased results, fraud and corruption must be expected. “Since funders get to review the proposed research methods and specify the process and exclusion criteria prior to granting funds, the results will be stacked in the funder’s favor.”
Coca Cola deployed scientists to confirm its sugary lemonades, one of the main drivers behind the obesity epidemic, are actually healthy. Monsanto finances a whole armada of scientists in order to prove that genetically modified organisms (GMO) and the pesticides used to treat the manipulated crops are not only without any risks but are helping to save the world. The Environmental Protection Agency withheld important data for more than a decade from the general public and Congress to advance an ideologically biased political agenda.
Recently, 107 Nobel laureates asked Greenpeace to stop opposing the genetically manipulated “Golden Rice.” Why should a peace or literature Nobel laureate have a public voice in this matter? They have won the most prestigious honors the scientific community knows, so their voices are ideal to influence public opinion. As was revealed soon after, the background of the appeal was a public relations stunt of the GMO industry — more evidence of how science and scientific authorities are in decline.
Moreover, cases of outright scientific fraud and faking data to further scientific careers are on the rise. In the past few years, journals had to retract more than 110 papers in at least six instances of peer-review rigging, according to Nature. Many peer-review rings have been discovered in which scientists collude to positively review each other’s work.
Whoever does not comply with what “science” currently dictates is regarded as a heretic. We call this the science Taliban who decree, “If you don’t back what you say with a study, your argument is just word salad.” It is the dogmatism and quasi-fanatical belief in science that is unreasonable and irrational against the background of a dreadful history full of mistakes, disasters and re-evaluations.
Scientific consensus on fat, for example, held for decades that fat is unhealthy and one should avoid it. Until it was recently revealed that this was bogus science that has probably cost tens of thousands their lives. Pharma scandals emerge regularly: Scientifically tested and proven medicines develop horrendous side effects, from handicapped babies to death.
Moreover, science is experiencing a severe reproducibility crisis. When researchers attempt to replicate the experiments described in published papers, they often fail to reproduce the findings. Such findings become very dubious. It has been estimated that 85 percent of biomedical research is wasted, and in medicine 75-90 percent of the research is irreproducible.
Science must restore its credibility. To that end, its very transparency has to be substantially increased. The public must know about funders’ financial benefits resulting from sponsored research and must scrutinize results that follow ideological agendas. We cannot allow corporations to hijack this common good for the sake of short-term profits and government bureaucrats to abuse it to force ideologies on the people. The consequence is a dead end where fabrication rather than research flourishes. We as a society must find ways to finance science on a neutral basis without a narrow financial or ideological agenda concerning the outcome in order to restore its credibility and create true progress.
• Wolfram Klinger is founder and CEO of Switzerland-based XTP Group. Andrew Smart is a former principal scientist at Novartis.