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Trust, Credibility, and Conflicts of Interest

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The interests and aims of researchers and industry do not always align; conflicts between the competing interests of research, as a whole, and the commercial interests of industry, are the source of a set of important issues about industry-sponsored research.  One subset of these concerns the role of research in providing input to policy makers, guarding the health and safety of the public by testing products, and the like.  The effects of conflicts of interest (real or perceived) in discharging this role thus have potential negative consequences for public trust in science, and the credibility of research results.  The articles by Bekelman et al and Krimsky below are a good place to start; the article by Powys White and Crease gives a good overview of the importance of public trust in science, and the issues for research credibility raised by industry-sponsorship.

Als-Nielsen, Bodil et al. “Association of Funding and Conclusions in Randomized Drug Trials: A Reflection of Treatment Effect or Adverse Events?” Journal of the American Medical Association 290, no. 7 (2003): 921-928.

Bekelman, Justin E. et al. “Scope and Impact of Financial Conflicts of Interest in   Biomedical Research: A Systematic Review.” Journal of the American Medical Association 289, no. 4 (2003): 454-465.

Krimsky, Sheldon. “Do Financial Conflicts of Interest Bias Research? An Inquiry into the 'Funding Effect' Hypothesis.” Science, Technology, and Human Values 38, no. 4 (2012): 566-587.

The potential for conflicts of interest arising from industry sponsorship of research – especially in research crucially important for the health and safety of the public, such as clinical trials of new drugs – is one of the most serious systemic ethical issues raised by industry-sponsorship of research.  The above articles all contain empirical studies of the possibility for conflict of interest arising from industry sponsorship; all three conclude that there are reasons to believe that conflicts of interest can arise from financing of research by private companies, and that the kinds of researcher-industry relationships that can give rise to conflicts of interest are widespread.

Biddle, Justin. “Lessons From the Vioxx Debacle: What the Privatization of Science Can Teach Us About Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology 21, no. 1 (2007): 21-39.

Biddle focuses on one episode – the recall of Vioxx, a pain medication for arthritis, and the controversy that subsequently developed over its clinical approval – as an illustration of the tendency of industry sponsorship to compromise what he calls the “epistemic integrity” of research (that is, the potential for the research to generate good, objective results).  Biddle concludes that the problem is with the institutional structure of the relationship between researcher and industry, and that existing accounts in the philosophy of science of the institutional structure of scientific research are inadequate for dealing with this problem.

Elliot, Kevin C. and Daniel J. McKaughan. “How Values in Scientific Discovery and Pursuit Alter Theory.” Philosophy of Science 76, no. 5 (2009): 598-611.

Knuuttila, Tarja. “Contradictions of Commercialization: Revealing the Norms of Science?” Philosophy of Science 79, no. 5 (2012): 833-844.

Wilholt, Torsten. “Bias and Values in Scientific Research.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 2009: 92-101.

These three articles all deal with the affect of university-industry partnership on the norms of scientific research, and problems with the credibility of research arising from that effect.  Eliot and McKaughan focus on pollution research, and argue that nonepistemic values influence research in important ways.  Both Knuuttila and Wilholt argue that, contra the position defended by the Etzkowitz article cited in the first section, adopting the norms of entrepreneurial science has a negative effect on the credibility of scientific research.

Johns, Michael M.E. et al. “Restoring Balance to Industry-Academia Relationships in an Era of Institutional Financial Conflicts of Interest: Promoting Research While Maintaining Trust.” Journal of the American Medical Association 289, no. 6 (2003): 741-746.

Master, Zubin, and David B. Resnik. “Hype and Public Trust in Science.” Science and Engineering Ethics 19, no. 2 (2013): 321-335.

Powys Whyte, Kyle, and Robert P. Crease. “Trust, Expertise, and the Philosophy of Science.” Synthese 177, no. 3 (2010): 411-425.

Resnik, David B. “Scientific Research and the Public Trust.” Science and Engineering Ethics 17, no. 3 (2011): 399-409.

These articles all deal with the effect of industry sponsorship on public trust in science.  The article by Powys Whyte and Crease is good background on trust and credibility; Resnik also discusses trust and credibility generally, but argues that the need for public trust in scientific research has ethical implications for the structure and conduct of research.  Johns et al examines possible institutional fixes for the conflicts of interest, and subsequent erosion of trust, that may come from industry sponsorship.  Zubin and Resnik examine erosion of trust from a different angle: the effects of hyping the possible benefits of commercial biotechnology on trust in biotechnology research, which is especially relevant when partnerships between industry and researchers make the two indistinguishable.

Demski, Joel S. “Corporate Conflicts of Interest.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 17, no. 2 (2003): 51-72.

DuVal, Gordon. “Institutional Conflicts of Interest: Protecting Human Subjects, Scientific Integrity, and Institutional Accountability.” The Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 32, no. 4 (2004): 613-625.

Resnik, David B., and Adil E. Shamoo. "Conflict of Interest and the University." Accountability in Research 9, no. 1 (2002): 35-64.

These three articles deal with the idea of institutional conflicts of interests; that is, a conflict of interest that arises from a partnership between institutions with competing interests.  Resnik and Shamoo articulate the idea in general, and discuss the ways in which university-industry partnerships generate institutional conflicts of interest.  Demski examines the phenomenon of corporate conflict of interest (which he sees as a species of corporate malfeasance, arising from managers’ failures to properly insulate competing interests) and considers conflicts of interest arising from industry sponsorship as a specific instance of this general phenomenon.  DuVal considers the important question, of whether there are any institutional arrangements that can at least mitigate if not remove institutional conflicts of interest arising from industry sponsorship.

Orbach, Raymond L. “Universities Should Be 'Honest Brokers' Between Business and the Public Sector.” Chronicle of Higher Education 47 (2001).

Orbach was chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, and in this short op-ed defends the notion of the university as an “honest broker” between industry and the public.  On the “honest broker” model, universities have a crucial role in safeguarding public health and safety by resolving conflicts between the interests of the public and corporations.  Orbach argues that partnerships between universities and industry cannot jeopardize this important role.

Taylor, Patrick L. “Innovation Incentives or Corrupt Conflicts of Interest? Moving Beyond Jekyll and Hyde in Regulating Biomedical Academic-Industry Relationships.” Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics 13, no. 1 (2013): 135-198.

Taylor explores the possibilities for university-industry partnerships that don’t raise problems regarding trust and credibility.  Taylor’s article is animated by a kind of fatalism about industry sponsorship; he sees university-industry partnerships as the only way to deliver research that can satisfy the public’s demand for medical innovation, a demand he sees as justifiable given that (1) public funds finance a great deal of biomedical research, and (2) the possibility of welfare-enhancing medical innovation is often offered as justification for public financing.  Taylor sees the main problem as lying in the legal structure of university-industry partnerships; the set of laws that make up what he calls the “Bayh-Dole institutions” which structure university-industry partnerships are not (on Taylor’s view) sufficiently robust to deal with systemic problems that arise from industry sponsorship.