This post was authored by Joseph Huggard, the General Manager of The Huggard Consulting Group who has spent more than 20 years working on a broad range of high profile issues with a particular emphasis on the use and communication of robust science, better regulation and regulatory impact assessment. Joe is highly regarded for his establishment of panels with high levels of scientific expertise and integrity which have produced influential findings on a variety of difficult issues.
The view that industry has undue influence on the scientific advice to regulators, policy-makers and legislators is being widely promulgated. This goes hand in hand with the campaign which seeks to stigmatise the work and publications of those who in the past have had any connections with industry. These authors, when they publish on controversial issue, are frequently the subject of ad hominem attacks. This is because opponents find it easier to attack the person than to attack the substance. To use the soccer analogy: “If you can’t play the ball, play the man.” Campaigns of this nature have been successful and conflict of interest (COI) is now synonymous with financial COI or any other connections to industry. This view excludes other conflicts of interest or personal reward factors, including academic-professional ambitions, power, status, personal commitments and experiences, which, academics agree, are likely to result in greater incidence of bias than financial ones.
The unfortunate consequence of this widespread exclusionary attitude is that many of the best-qualified experts are simply no longer interested in getting involved with expert panels or providing testimony because of the attendant risk of being attacked.
In Europe, it has been calculated that 85% of all research in the scientific field is funded either directly or indirectly by industry, a practice that governments aggressively encourage. When it comes to new applied scientific fields, such as epigenetics, there may well be nobody with worthwhile expertise who is not cooperating with industry.
When publishing scientific findings, it has long been maintained that the peer review process takes care of potential biases. However, with the increased volume of publications, the shortage of experts prepared to carry out the thankless task of peer review, combined with the pressure to only publish positive studies, this is, increasingly, a slim defense against bias.
Addressing the perceived COI issue is not easy. Good, rigorous science may produce recommendations and lead to outcomes in legislation and litigation which are unpopular, go against the received wisdom and may even be counter intuitive. Hence, if scientists rely on science, the provenance of which can be dammed by association, they risk being heavily criticized by opponents or even their peers. However, if we only value opinions which have the “right provenance” as a basis for policy or courtroom decisions, we risk damage to the very public that our regulatory, legislative and legal processes are designed to protect.
If we consider courtroom decisions and the risks of having important and significant scientific evidence excluded as happened in a Georgia Pacific asbestos case, then great care needs to be exercised in study development as the playing field may not be level. This is illustrated by a recently published European study, in which copies of protocols of epidemiological studies related to phthalates were requested from the investigators. It found that the authors of studies which claimed a positive association between phthalates and health outcomes (134 from a sample of 158) were three times less likely to be prepared to share the study protocol.
An initiative is now taking place in Europe which seeks to take a more holistic view of conflict of interest and the potential for attendant biases. This initiative begins with a workshop, chaired by a former judge of the European Court of Justice: Ensuring that Policy-Makers and Regulators Access the Best Quality Scientific Advice. This workshop brings together a vice-chairman of the EU scientific advisory committee, an academic, a science journalist, a senior official from a well-known NGO and a behavioral psychologist. The objective is to level the playing field such that all forms of conflict of interest are fully evaluated and addressed in a rigorous manner. It is designed to set the basis for developing recommendations that are targeted at the European Institutions, where many are supportive of a more balanced approach. It is anticipated that its conclusions will have applicability beyond the EU.
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