October 11, 2015
All joking aside, I am still thinking about the revelation that agricultural scientists were sending e-mails that were supportive of the food industry point of view on several sensitive issues. In all seriousness I want to suggest that this is less nefarious than it has made out to be. At the same time, it’s more troubling.
In my experience, here’s how the “industry ties” thing works. It’s certainly true that rich people and rich organizations (like major food companies) have the wherewithal to commission research that is of interest to them. They also have the means to generate studies that are skewed in a manner that supports their commercial or political agenda. In the former case, they genuinely want to understand something, and it is not in their interest to spend money on biased research. This is not to say that there are no ethical issues. There are ethical issues encountered in any and every research project, but it is not necessarily the case that industry wants those issues resolved in such a way that the researcher just becomes a high priced “yes man.”
Of course, in the latter case that is exactly what they want, and the presumption that critics are making is that corrupt researchers shill for industry. It’s more like this: Those of us with university appointments are publishing our ideas and findings on a constant basis. (Witness the fact that you are reading the Thornapple Blog, and that it’s been coming out every Sunday for almost six years.) It’s pretty easy for industry to cherry pick the researchers that they like and then drive up to their office door with a truckload of money. The researchers themselves may not be doing anything different from what they would do if some neutral party—the National Science Foundation or the Gates Foundation—drove up with a truckload of money. From the researcher’s perspective, it’s totally objective research. It’s just happenstance that this research chooses framing assumptions (what to look for, what to compare it against) that lead eventually to a pattern of findings that some person or group (like a major food company) wants to promulgate.
In some of the more blatant cases, a company or a trade-group that represents a bunch of companies will find a scientist whose views suit their agenda to a tee. They will then start flying that individual all over to hell and gone, attending conferences, public hearings and giving lectures. They will put their substantial financial clout behand getting that scientist’s message out. But this doesn’t mean that the scientist in question is saying anything different than they would have said in the absence of all those plane tickets. In my experience, he or she is totally committed to their message, and has in no way been induced to say it because they wanted to fly all over hell and gone. Speaking of myself for a moment, I fly too much and am usually looking for ways to cut back my travel. What’s seductive is when someone thinks you are important enough that they want to hear what you have to say.
Of course in the cases we’re talking about, the industry wants other people to hear what these scientists have to say, and the fact that they are saying some particular thing is the reason why industry thinks they are important. Which is my way of circling back around to that “more troubling” thought we started with way back in the first paragraph. Academic researchers do seem to have a need for a certain amount of ego-stroking, and there may indeed be subtle forces that drive people to construct their studies along certain lines because doing it that way has led to strokes in the past. I have a friend named Jonathan Marks at Penn State who calls this “institutional corruption.” That and the fact that there is a systematic bias in the kind of research that gets done in the first place: lots of dollars for research that might lead to a new product, very few dollars to investigate its possible risks. So I’m not saying that there is no corruption here; just that it may not be nefarious in quite the way that some newspaper reporters seem to think.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University