Find me free research and I'll find you Santa Claus

By Mick Hume (THE TIMES, 12/12/06):

It has been “revealed” that the late Sir Richard Doll, the research pioneer who helped to establish the link between smoking and lung cancer, “failed to disclose” fees that he received from chemical companies. Some suggest that these payments undermine Doll’s work on environmental causes of cancer. But if money always corrupts science, then most research would be worthless.

It seems that small children are not the only ones who want to believe in Santa Claus. There are educated grown-ups who also believe in a kindly saint who will hand out research grants and expect nothing more than a smile in return. They have divided researchers into two imaginary camps: the bad ones who take corporate money, and good ones who don’t.

In the real world, however, all researchers have to get money from somewhere — and public funding can be hard to get. No doubt the corporations look out for their own interests while funding research that can benefit public health. And we all know the story of Big Tobacco’s misuse of science. Yet it is just as distorted to suggest that what the critics call “paid-for science” (what other kind is there?) must be unsound. Too often today, debates about scientific issues from climate change to GM crops seem to be less about “what evidence did you find?” than “who paid you to say that?”

As for Doll’s failure to declare some payments, it seems a bit much to criticise past researchers for failing to meet today’s regulatory standards, which did not exist at the time. Reading history backwards is hardly good scientific practice.

And what about other, non-market pressures on researchers to get the “right” result? Like, for example, the political agenda promoted by the Government and health campaigners that makes it far easier to get support for on-message projects. The crusade against passive smoking is one area where their assertions often seem to run ahead of the evidence. Yet those questioning the orthodoxy are likely to find themselves out in the cold. Indeed some frowned upon Doll because for years he seemed relatively unimpressed by the epidemiological evidence on the effects of passive smoking, telling Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs that “the effects of other people smoking in my presence are so small that it doesn’t worry me”.

It is rarely admitted that, before Doll and his British colleagues, much of the key work on the link between smoking and lung cancer was done by German scientists as part of Adolf Hitler’s zealous war against tobacco.

So, should we doubt all this anti-smoking research, since it was first paid for to boost Nazi propaganda? Come to think of it, even that “fat cat” Santa could surely be accused of having some dubious connections to the corporate sector . . .