Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who would you take money from?

One of my recent commenters brought up the spectre of tainted research dollars:

"Doctors have been critical of [Edith London's] research and the fact that she accepts money from Philip-Morris."
Does this matter?

As an introduction, I'm a research scientist. I've pointed that out on numerous times in my blog. I'm a post-doc, and I'm currently looking for a permanent position. I'm keeping my options open, looking at academic, industry and private research institutions when I'm looking for positions. Indeed, I'm looking for jobs on two different continents. As such, I'm looking at taking money to do research from numerous different sources.

In my 11 year science career thus far I have been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the United States Army Breast Cancer Research Program, a small foundation that shall remain nameless as it identifies my nationality (I have to have some privacy, right?) and my current benefactor, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Does it matter who pays me? Am I beholden to the people who have given me money? Am I more likely to speak kindly about the American Army because they paid me? Am I less likely to say that Howard Hughes was an obsessive-compulsive because of the money that HHMI is putting into my retirement account?

My views on these questions have changed over time. Before I understood how science was done, I would have said that of course the source of money taints the scientist. Now I have a less simplistic view.

Modern science requires vast amounts of money. Someone has to pay for that work. In the U.S., the vast majority of biological research is paid for by companies. The second largest funder is the National Institutes of Health (paid for by American taxpayers). At the end of the day, money taints *all* research. How do you get around that?

The answer is reasonably simple. Firstly, most (all?) journals these days require a statement about funding and conflict of interest. When you publish in a journal, you have to state whether the work you are doing in any way will reflect on investments that you have or products that you own the rights to. You also have to put a statement acknowledging the source of your funding. This gives the readers of the article the opportunity to scrutinize your results with that in mind. Failure to disclose this kind of information is a huge no-no in scientific circles. Indeed, it can end careers to be withhold financial conflicts.

Secondly, science does not proceed based on assertions. It proceeds based on data. If a scientist publishes fraudulent data because they received money from a company (or because they wanted to impress someone), that is a career ender. Frauds get caught. If no one can replicate your results, you will get caught. And in the end, this is the most important part of science. We replicate each others results. We build on previous work. And in this process, frauds get caught. In the short run, they may get away with it. In the long run, they will get caught, and they will get fired.

In the end, our erstwhile commenter asks:
"Have your ever or would you ever take money from big tobacco to fund your research?"
Have I? No. I haven't ever worked on anything that they would be interested in funding. Would I? Yes. If I had a problem I was working on that they were interested in funding, I would take their money. I would disclose my funding source. And it wouldn't change my data.



thrugreeneyes said...

Thanks for answering my question with such candor. I do appreciate your honesty.

"Now I don't have such a simplistic view".

Factician, do you see how I might find that rather condescending? Your tone comes across as if you believe yourself to be the great scientist, while I am just a lowly commenter beneath you unworthy of your lofty knowledge and expertise. Why do you have to underhandedly put me down to make your argument? Does that make you feel elevated to a higher place? Just wondering.

I don't believe that scientists would compromise their data to please their benefactors. However, I do wonder if a company such as Philip Morris would use the data found in a socially irresponsible manner, or perhaps misinterpret the data presented by the researchers. For example, some have raised the possibility that Philip Morris might take the results of the research and use it to create a more addictive cigarette.

Also, according to the LA Times on Feb.9, 2008 "UCLA officials say that the idea for the study of teenagers and monkeys originated with Philip Morris." I wanted to ask you if that is normal procedure.

In terms of you taking money in the future from big tobacco, (of course this is completely hypothetical, I realize), I bet someone such as yourself who is intelligent enough to be a scientist is also intelligent and creative enough to find a benefactor who is socially responsible. Just a thought!

I am going to have to take a break from your blog for a while as I am getting really busy with work. When I win the lottery, I will blog all day long! If I may respectfully offer some constructive criticism, I do not enjoy when you call others names, even if I agree with the point of your post. Calling others hypocrites and nuts is inflammatory language and is not helpful in encouraging discussion and debate of important subjects which I think is the purpose of your blog. Or maybe the purpose of your blog is for you to vent? Then name calling would be fine, I suppose.

If you choose to respond I will read it because I can do that quickly, but I won't be able to comment as that always takes me longer.

I hope to visit you in the future as I am interested in many topics and enjoy discussion, debate and learning new things.

The Factician said...


I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings, but the statement about simplistic view stands. Fact of the matter is that research costs a *lot* of money. Taking money from anyone has the *potential* to make them feel beholden to the source of the money. Should I not take money from the NIH, as they may taint my views? Should I not take money from HHMI? What about Bill Gates. I happen to think Microsoft isn't really a very nice corporation. Nonetheless, I would take money from the Gates Foundation. Does that mean I would be tainted, and be more likely to push Windows products?

No. I should take the money, do the research, and be completely honest with other scientists about where the money came from. Let them evaluate my data based on whether or not it is replicable. If it isn't, perhaps they should look into my motivations. If it is replicable, who cares where the money came from?

Good luck.