Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Underscoring the Importance of Publicly Funded Science Research

It is clear that (financial) incentives can motivate and alter our behaviors.  This lies at the core of free market capitalism (just ask Ayn Rand or Adam Smith).  And scientists, sadly, are no exception. Almost all peer reviewed journals ask authors to disclose any financial interests or potential conflicts of interest in what they are attempting to publish... and with good reason.  A recent study (pdf) shows that research that is funded by pharmaceutical companies is more likely to be biased to give positive results.  Now this isn't to say there is outright fraud, but the difference between a truly significant finding and a weak trend may not be all that much.   For example, if you are a researcher who is getting paid to conduct this research, give lectures, etc., and you are relying on money from a company to keep your lab funded, you may be more likely to make small concessions to keep that company happy and keep the money flowing.  For example, you might let the company have some input in the experimental design or in determining what types of statistical tests should be run.  Something like this is not overt "fudging of data", but it can affect the results and skew them in favor of the pharmaceutical companies' interests.  (Or it could be overt fraud in the interest of personal financial gain, as in the case of Andrew Wakefield who ignited tremendous and unwarranted fears over vaccines and autism.)  Of course, all of this doesn't mean that we should throw out all findings from research that was funded by private interests, but it should be evaluated with added scrutiny, and any claims of veracity should be withheld until an independent research group (or groups) can replicate the findings.  

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