Could you patent the sun?

One of the biggest enemies facing critical thinking and scepticism is that of personal bias. Bias is extremely easy to spot in other people, but notoriously difficult to spot in yourself. No one likes to think that they may be biased but everyone is, in one way or another. Bias often appears in science denialism where someone may be religiously biased towards a Biblical interpretation of the fossil evidence (for example) rather than towards the scientific explanation. The best we can do about our biases is recognise them and be extra vigilant when we come across evidence that conforms to our biased pre-judgements. Because bias has such an affect on our interpretation of evidence, scientists especially should try to limit the influence of such outside factors on their impartial research. Yet we see precisely the opposite occurring. As research and industry snuggle into a cosy relationship, scientists have become enamoured with their commercial partners.

The commercialisation of research has exploded in the fields of biomedical science and biotechnology, with industry poised to make millions, scientists are all too happy to take a cut of the action. However, money is a powerful motivator and researchers now have an added incentive to find certain result. The result which favours whatever corporation provides the funding. If scientists are being influenced by their source of funding, then it should be apparent in their results. Industry funded projects should find positive results more often than non-profit funding. Indeed, taking the example of pharmaceutical research, that is what we find.

Many scientific journals require the submitting authors to declare any conflicts of interest, for example being funded by the same company who owns the patent on the drug in question. Several statistical analyses have been done on the outcomes of these studies and the results should not be surprising to anyone who understands the effects of bias. In 2001 an analysis of 314 drug trials found that non-profit funded research was 3.5 times more likely to find a negative result than industry sponsored trials1. A 2002 study of 159 articles in the British Medical Journal, which requires that funding be declared, found that the authors’ conclusions were significantly more positive in trials funded by for profit organisations compared with trials without competing interests (mean difference 0.48, P=0.014)2. A 2004 study showed that in 158 drug trials published in five leading medical journals results favoured industry funded studies by an odds ratio of 1.93. Finally, in 2003 a review selected 37 of the most rigorous studies and pooled their data. They found a statistically significant odds ratio of 3.6 favouring industry funded research4. This review also found that industry funding was associated with restriction on publication and data sharing if the results were negative.

One point to make about these analyses is that they are correlative only, causation could not be determined. Although the quality of the studies was controlled for (often poorer quality in industry funded trials) one possible explanation is that industry interests somehow pick pharmaceuticals that are more likely to succeed in trials. I can’t imagine how they would know beforehand which drugs have better prospects, but it is a possibility. More likely, however, is that the scientists performing these studies are influenced by the commercial factors at play in their research. These results are very reminiscent of ‘tobacco science’ where, for example, 94% of industry funded inquiry found no harm from second-hand smoke compared to just 13% of non-profit funded research. If correct, this interpretation is quite troubling. First, it means that consumers are being bombarded by new pharmaceuticals which are of questionable value over the old versions and in some cases, downright dangerous. Second, the reputation of science for impartiality and following evidence is being ruined by commercial interest by both outside companies and the scientists themselves. When the commercial bias of scientists is revealed, say through a drug recall or hidden financial contributions, the public starts becoming suspicious of these intellectual elites. In fact, the commercialisation of research could be contributing to the distrust of science, the growing interest in alternative medicine, and the rejection of genetic engineering.

Believe it or not there was a time when industry and academia where more or less separate. Scientists with relevant expertise might be given an honorarium to help overcome a particular problem or speak on a certain topic, but that was about it. Funding was largely provided by governments and scientists were free to explore myriad lines of inquiry, whether it might lead to a practical application or not. Even when there research could be commercialised, the scientists themselves would rarely have much to do with it. Their results were given away into the public domain. In 1954, Jonas Salk developed his vaccine against polio, when asked whether he would patent it he found the idea ridiculous replying, “Could you patent the sun?’ Unfortunately, this attitude is found rarely in the field of biotechnology. Many exotic genes and interesting methods are often patented by the researchers who first discover them either preventing further inquiry or driving the cost of research even higher. This also makes the funding of science less attractive to the public sector that now sees less return for its investment.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any solutions for the problem. I just think the commercialisation of research makes an important contribution to the growth of science denialism and was worth highlighting. Patent law clearly needs a complete overall. I dislike attempts to own parts of nature – “to patent the sun’ – but companies do need protection for their intellectual property. Similarly, industry funding research is having a negative impact on the impartiality of science, but there is no denying the benefits that have emerged from such partnerships. Perhaps blinding individual scientists to the source of their funding and preventing patents on natural products could go some way to removing this troubling commercial bias from academic scientists.

  1. Yaphe J, Edman R, Knishkowy B, Herman J. The association between funding by commercial interests and study outcome in randomized controlled drug trials. Fam Pract. 2001 Dec;18(6):565-8.
  2. Lise L Kjaergard & Bodil Als-Nielsen. Association between competing interests and authors’ conclusions: epidemiological study of randomised clinical trials published in the BMJ. BMJ 2002;325:249 ( 3 August )
  3. Bhandari M, Busse JW, Jackowski D, Montori VM, Schünemann H, Sprague S, Mears D, Schemitsch EH, Heels-Ansdell D, Devereaux PJ. Association between industry funding and statistically significant pro-industry findings in medical and surgical randomized trials. CMAJ. 2004 Feb 17;170(4):477-80.
  4. Justin E. Bekelman, AB; Yan Li, MPhil; Cary P. Gross, MD Scope and Impact of Financial Conflicts of Interest in Biomedical Research: A Systematic Review JAMA. 2003;289:454-465

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