Conflict of interest
A recent study published on Springer Link discusses conflict of interest in scientific research, an area long overdue for concise and unbiased study. It has long been recognised that researchers may be influenced by the sponsors of their research. There are many reasons for this including the pressure to publish and the need for repeat research funding to further ones career.

The typical portrayal of scientists in the media is of unbiased individuals on a quest for truth, only considering hard facts, uninfluenced by personal feelings, searching for the unvarnished truth. Reality however seems to be somewhat different.

As the study notes:
"There is now compelling evidence from several fields that papers reporting funding from organizations that have an interest in the results often generate different findings from those that do not report such funding."
In order to counter this effect, research journals now require authors to submit statements describing any conflicts of interest or competing interests. And in a perfect world, that would be all that was needed. After all, gritty unbiased scientists in search of the unvarnished truth wouldn't lie, would they? Well it seems they well might.

The research states:
"In an ideal world, scientific research would be entirely free from bias, with factors such as the source of funding of the authors playing no role in the design of a study, how it is analysed and how the findings are presented. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and a growing body of work, especially meta-analyses, have shown that the source of funding may be an important determinant of the results, while other research, such as analyses of documents obtained from the tobacco industry, has revealed clear evidence of influence by the funders of research."
The first thing you notice here is how the tobacco industry is held up as the prime example of the arch villain of research funding. But when assessing whether research and its funding is viable and reliable, what really matters is the answer to the question "who benefits?"

Who Benefits?

It's clear that in the past the tobacco industry was complicit in suppressing data and it's also clear that concern for their profits drove that activity. But to only consider the tobacco industry as complicit is clear indication of an enormous (and convenient) bias, one that is almost never acknowledged by the media and the scientific fraternity.

Take for example the two preeminent funders of anti-smoking research - the Wellcome Trust and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Both foundations were established by pharmaceutical companies. Endowed by pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is in the business of pushing pharmaceutical nicotine. Its lobbying activities include state-funded smoking cessation programs where nicotine delivery devices are recommended. The foundation is also active in imposing smoking bans designed to compel cigarette smokers to quit smoking tobacco and, implicitly, to start using some form of pharmaceutical nicotine.

When these components are in place the Foundation reaps its financial rewards. Owning about 72,600,000 shares of Johnson and Johnson, the nicotine delivery device manufacturer, RWJF makes money every time anti-tobacco legislation is enacted.

The Wellcome Trust now separate from Wellcome, still generates a significant portion of its funds from shareholdings in pharmaceutical companies.

The Smoking Cessation Market is Huge

The smoking cessation market, which includes nicotine patches, inhalers and cessation drugs is now a multi billion dollar industry. The pharmaceutical industry have succeeded in monetizing nicotine to the extent that acquiring your nicotine through their products is prohibitively expensive (hence the drive for ever increasing taxes on tobacco). They have succeeded in demonizing nicotine delivery via smoking, yet they are also investing huge sums in attempts to develop nicotine based drugs to treat Alzheimers, Parkinsons and schizophrenia. And let's not forget the huge market for anti-depressants and stress relief products, areas where smoking excels as a simple and effective solution.

One can see how there is huge profit for these companies in ensuring the only delivery mechanisms for nicotine is via their expensive patented products, and not through an easily available and effective delivery mechanism, smoking.

As a side note, this also explains why there has been such a huge reaction from the anti-smoking lobby (and their funders) to vaping. Just when they thought they had smoking on the ropes, demonized and taxed to within an inch of its life, along comes vaping, another inexpensive and supposedly less harmful method of delivering nicotine. Hence the hysteria and huge effort to have vaping included in smoking bans. It is always about profit.

So, the question needs to be asked, if it is unacceptable for tobacco companies to fund research into the effects of smoking due to their vested interests, why is it OK for these foundations to fund research which drives sales of products sold by companies they hold shares in?

Why BigPharma Funds Research

Clearly the same rules should apply. And clearly they don't. Why? Because getting ongoing funding research depends on the beneficence of the funding organisations. If you publish results that they approve of, more funds are likely to flow. If you publish research that goes against their reason for existence, your funding will quickly evaporate, and with it your chance of career advancement and future tenure. It's a slippery slope when a major incentive to scientists and researchers is to produce what your research sponsor is looking for! The other factor relevant here is the researcher must be willing not to publish if the research sponsor doesn't like the direction the research is going. Be receptive to these nuances, and your career will flourish. Go against them and suffer the consequences.

The former vice CEO and whistleblower from Pfizer, Dr. Peter Rost, has explained in several interviews how a pharmaceutical corporation provides years of funding to specific experts and institutions in order to make them dependent on the corporation:
"You give them grants, you establish friendships, you make sure they become beholden to you, you start programs with them, which they can make a profit from. But they are not going to continue to get money, unless they are saying what you want them to say. Everybody knows that this is how things work. They know it and you know it - it's only maybe the public that does not know it. That's how you influence the medical establishment. Simply, with money."
Serious Consequences

So, what happens when a scientist goes against the prevailing scientific wisdom and publishes research the anti-smoking lobby and by extension its principal funders, the pharmaceutical industry, don't like? Lets look at a classic example, James Enstrom.

Enstrom published peer-reviewed research (the supposed Gold Standard of scientific research) in the British Medical Journal in 2003. The backlash was huge and immediate. Engstrom suffered numerous ad hominum attacks, was pilloried as a servant of the tobacco industry and ultimately lost his job. His research was peer-reviewed and published in the British Medical Journal which has never moved to retract it. But it was his conclusion that caused hysteria amongst the anti-smoking/pharmaceutical lobby, because he was contradicting the politically correct view of second hand smoke. How dare he!
"The results do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality, although they do not rule out a small effect. The association between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed."
Then to make matters worse, in 2005 he wrote an editorial for Forbes magazine that outed junk science from the EPA regarding diesel particulate matter causing cancer. Enough was enough. His employer, UCLA, fired him due to his research "not being aligned with the department's mission". Enstrom took the UCLA to court and has recently been reinstated and received a financial settlement. Note that the reason UCLA took exception to Enstrom's research and conclusions was because it was "not aligned with the department's mission". Surely any scientific research department's 'mission' is the truth, and facts are facts?

Most Research Is False

The final word belongs to renowned epidemiologist Dr John Ionnidis, who wrote an article in 2005, which caused much gnashing of teeth in scientific and corporate circles. He begins with this comment:
"There is increasing concern that most published research findings are false."
He follows with a list of corollaries, all worth noting. The fifth one aptly sums up the theme of this article
"The greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true."
Don't Be Hypocritical

Clearly, there is much reason to be concerned about scientific research funded by industry. But in investigating this type of conflict of interest, each of us needs to be careful to not allow our own conflict of interest to influence our conclusions. We should be careful not to pick and choose which industry funded research we accept and which we reject, based only on our own and societal biases. As long as potential conflicts of interest are clearly disclosed, there is no reason to attack scientists or scientific findings funded by organisations we don't agree with. Instead, we need only examine the data and conclusions and see where the truth really lies. And we need to do it for all research, no matter who funds it.