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How to spot industry influence in science

26 June 2018
Renowned expert warns of efforts by industry to hijack research
Keen to know if vested interests have influenced research methods or policies? Professor Lisa Bero outlines the signs to help scientists, journalists and the public assess scientific communications for industry involvement.

Internationally renowned for her studies on the integrity of research evidence used to influence health policy, Professor Lisa Bero leads the University of Sydney’s Evidence, Policy and Influence Collaborative at the Charles Perkins Centre.

Today in Tobacco Control (from the BMJ Journals group), Professor Bero presents her top tips to spot industry influence on science policy.

Writing in response to new analysis of how the Brussels Declaration on Ethics and Principles for Science and Society Policy-making was developed with significant – but not always transparent – involvement of industry, as well as earlier studies, Professor Bero warns fellow scientists against being gullible.  

“Open access to data, rigorous methods and disclosure of conflicts of interest appeal to most researchers, but these can be twisted to support only industry interests – as in the case of the Brussels Declaration,” Professor Bero, from the Faculty of Medicine and Health’s School of Pharmacy, says.

“For years, corporations have been trying to change the standards by which science is evaluated; and many scientists were convinced to support the Brussels Declaration unaware it was sponsored by the tobacco and alcohol industries.

Collectively, scientists need to learn to recognise when genuine commitments to research integrity are being hijacked to advance industry agendas.
Professor Lisa Bero

"I hope these tips make it easier for scientists to expose such initiatives and walk away from involvement with them.”

How to spot industry influence in science:

1. A public relations firm started the initiative

“Communications firms have led many campaigns to disseminate industry messages, such as more research on pharmaceuticals is required to meet unmet needs, newer drugs are more beneficial than older ones, tobacco is not harmful, sugar is an important part of diet,” Professor Bero says.

2. Claims of a ‘grassroots’ effort

 “The lack of transparency about industry support for ‘bottom up’ efforts can mislead the public and policy makers into thinking that the initiatives were not designed by industry,” Professor Bero says.

3. A lack of funding disclosure

“Recent comparisons of internal industry documents or transparency databases with disclosure statements show that a variety of industries provide undisclosed financial support to scientists who are involved in critiquing methods or research,” Professor Bero warns.

4. Conflicts of interest misunderstood

“A reasonable expectation of a certain result is not a conflict of interest because the results of the project could not personally benefit the funder or researcher,” Professor Bero explains.

“On the other hand, industry funding for research about products made by the industry is a conflict of interest because the sponsoring organisation could profit from findings that the product is beneficial.”

5. ‘Thought leaders’ and ‘influencers’ are involved

“Multiple industries have a record of selecting and paying scientists who they believe to be ‘key opinion leaders’ in order to advance industry positions,” Professor Bero says.

6. Phrases such as “More than XX individuals from YY countries”

“Such phrases create a sense of false consensus when the majority of the participants are affiliated with industry,” says Professor Bero.

7. The tobacco industry is a player

“The tobacco industry is often the leader in building industry coalitions to attempt to influence science policy,” Professor Bero observes. “It exploits cross-industry needs to redefine scientific standards in order to decrease regulation. Beware of tobacco industry involvement.”

For more tips and information read the full article here.

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