Corporate Influence on Science and Technology (Mar 2004)

Presentation given by Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, at the Green Party Spring Conference, Brighton on 13 March 2004



It's been just over a decade since John Major's Government published a White Paper entitled Realising our potential: A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology. It was based on an important premise: that the primary function of science is to generate technological innovation and hence economic prosperity. The policies of the Blair Government have fostered this model for science and technology in the UK. Now governments across the world consider this as the model to follow.

But this economic focus for science and technology is very narrow, and allows the economically powerful, ie large corporations, to have a lot of influence in this area, potentially sidelining goals such as environmental sustainability, human health and social justice.

In this talk, I will look at the methods industry uses to influence scientific research and technological development; the problems that arise from such influence; and finally suggest some solutions to these problems.


What methods does industry use to influence science and technology?

The first method is obvious: industry funds a lot of its own in-house research, specifically geared to developing commercial products. In 2001, the funding of in-house industry research and development (R&D) in the UK stood at £12.7 billion. This was a 26% increase over the previous ten years. During the same period publicly-funded R&D fell slightly to £6.6 billion1. Hence there has been a significant shift towards privately-funded R&D.

The second way of industry influencing science and technology is to fund research in universities. In 2001, UK industry spent nearly £300 million on research in UK universities. In total, industry (both UK and overseas) contributes about 10% of university funding in this country2.

The third way is through public-private partnerships called LINK programmes. About £40 million a year of public money is spent in such partnerships3.

The fourth way that industry influences science is by having their representatives sit on the committees which decide how the academic Research Councils spend their £1.7 billion (and increasing) annual budget. The largest industrial influence is on the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) where nearly one quarter of their committee members are industry scientists4.

The fifth way is by funding particular university research centres which may have a significant influence over the policy or science in a given area. One of the most notorious examples of this is Nottingham University's International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, which was set up with a £3.8 million grant from British American Tobacco5.

Industry's sixth way of influencing science is by funding non-governmental organisations which can lobby in their favour on science-related issues. For example, pharmaceutical companies fund some patients' groups to lobby for new drugs, while the scientist lobby group, the 'Scientific Alliance', was set up by money from the quarrying industry6. Even the country's foremost academic institution, The Royal Society, has reported that it recent donors included BP, Esso UK, AstraZeneca, and Rolls-Royce amongst others7. The donation from BP was for £1.4 million.

The seventh way is through the 'revolving door' between senior Government posts relevant to science and technology policy and senior industry posts. The most high profile example is, of course, the Minister for Science himself, multi-millionaire industrialist, Lord Sainsbury.

The eighth way is through input to the long-term development of science and technology strategies through, for example, the Government's Foresight panels. Not only do industry representatives commonly sit on these panels, the panels have a strong focus on the commercialisation of science.

The ninth way is the promotion by Government of a more commercial approach within academia. One important step in this direction was taken in 1995 by moving the Office of Science and Technology, the government body responsible for publicly-funded science and technology, from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Trade and Industry. More recently, it has involved several initiatives under the title 'Knowledge transfer and exploitation'. These include the Higher Education Innovation Fund, the Science Enterprise Challenge, the University Challenge, and the Public Sector Research Exploitation Fund. A total of £120 million over three years was allocated through these schemes in 2001, and this is being dramatically expanded. The Higher Education Innovation Fund alone will spend £187 million over the next two years. This is leading to an explosion of spin-off companies based on technologies developed within universities. In 2000/01, 248 spin-off firms were started: one for every £12 million of research expenditure. This is nearly four times the rate in the United States8.

The tenth way is through the pressuring of scientists who obstruct the commercialisation agenda. The most recent example of this was the case of Dr Andrew Stirling of Sussex University, a scientist sceptical of the case for commercialisation of GM crops. In 2003, while sitting on the Government's GM Science Panel, he was privately warned by a senior pro-GM scientist that his research position would be under threat if he did not shift his position9,10.


How does this industrial influence affect science and technology?

The first effect is that it leads to a bias towards technological development based on cutting-edge, experimental science.

For example, the BBSRC (the Research Council I mentioned earlier) is currently funding 26 projects concerned with growing GM crops, but just one involving organic production11. One important reason for this is that cutting-edge science can lead to an avalanche of commercially valuable patents - much faster than that generated by more established science. For example, nanotechnology-related patents in the United States rose by 500% in the ten years to 200212.

A knock-on effect from large amounts of funding going into hi-tech R&D is that we can get what is known as 'technology lock-in'. This is where society becomes so reliant on particular technologies that it becomes very difficult and expensive to change direction if they are found to be problematic. One classic example is nuclear power. Political decisions over the last half-century have meant that the lion's share of R&D funding for energy in industrialised countries has been directed towards this technology, while alternatives like renewables have seen much lower levels of investment. Figures from the International Energy Agency show that R&D on renewables has rarely reached 25% of that spent on nuclear fission during the last 25 years13. The consequence now is that attempts to phase out the technology due to concerns about, for example, links to nuclear weapons, vulnerability to terrorism or the dangers of nuclear waste are countered by the argument that we cannot afford to do without it because alternatives (eg renewable energy) are not sufficiently developed.

The second effect of industrial involvement is that more research is steered towards areas which can yield a commercial return, so that work developing a new product or process tends to be prioritised over, for example, work examining environmental or human health impacts of an existing product or process.

One stark example is research carried out in UK universities relevant to the oil and gas extraction sector. A recent investigation by Corporate Watch14 highlighted that just 2% of this research is directed towards assessing environmental impacts, while most of the rest is focussed on improving the efficiency of oil and gas discovery and extraction.

The third effect is the way in which the results of scientific research can be biased, both consciously and unconsciously, by industry involvement.

Several large investigations have recently been carried out into the extent of this bias in research on pharmaceuticals. A 1998 study which examined 70 research papers on a particular drug treatment for cardiovascular disease was typical. It found that of those authors supportive of the drugs’ positive benefits, 96% had financial relationships with the drugs’ manufacturers; while only 37% of those who were critical had such relationships15. Almost all of the other investigations found similar results: when a single vested interest, for example a corporation, funds a research study on an area of relevance to them, that study is much more likely to yield results which favour the vested interest.

Bias in scientific research can also be caused by suppression of the publication of negative results. In the 1990s a team led by Nancy Oliviera of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto concluded that a drug, deferiprone, was inadequate for its prescribed use. Due to a clause in her contract with the drug’s manufacturer, Apotex, Oliviera had to wait three years before publishing these conclusions16,17.

Fossil fuel interests in the United States are possibly the most notorious for funding research which suits its political interests, in particular that which undermines the science of climate change. One of the latest examples was a paper funded by the American Petroleum Institute and published in 2003 in the academic journal Climate Research. It presented an alternative assessment of temperature variation over the last 1000 years which concluded that recently observed warming was merely natural variation. The paper was used by George Bush to support his continued opposition to strong action on climate change. However, critics have pointed to many shortcomings in the paper, and the resulting arguments were so acrimonious that they led to the resignation of half the editorial board of the journal in protest at the paper's publication18.

These three effects - a bias towards high technology, a bias against environmental and social assessment, and a bias towards the industry perspective in research results - have serious implications.

By definition, the basic science behind cutting-edge technologies is less well understood than other areas. There is more uncertainty, especially concerning the effects of releasing such a technology into the wider world. The potential for unforeseen environmental, human health or social problems is likely to be significantly higher. Further, the ability to regulate these new technologies to prevent serious problems is likely to be lower, exactly because of this uncertainty.

There are many examples of cutting-edge technologies which were considered to be generally benign when introduced, but were later found to have serious side-effects. When CFCs were invented in the 1920's, they were welcomed because they were non-toxic and non-reactive. How could these gases possibly be a danger? It was not until the early 1970's, when the production and release of these chemicals into the environment had massively increased, that the first concerns were voiced about CFCs reacting in the cold upper atmosphere and thus damaging the protective ozone layer. But we had to wait until 1987 and the presence of a huge hole in the ozone layer before international controls were finally agreed. Production of CFCs and other similarly destructive gases has been significantly reduced since then, but the persistence of these chemicals means that damage to the ozone layer will continue for several decades yet19,20.

So it is clear that development of cutting-edge technologies requires greater environmental, human health and social assessment as part of the R&D process, not less as is often the case. Furthermore, with evidence of a clear link between industrial funding and both intentional and unintentional biases in research results, it is clear that we need more safeguards to protect the reliability of scientific work.


How can the problems caused by industrial influence on science and technology be tackled?

For a start, technological innovation need not only be based on cutting-edge science. One simple example is the clockwork radio invented by Trevor Bayliss: straightforward technology developed to benefit those, especially in developing countries, without access to an electricity grid while also eliminating the hazards of disposable batteries. There is plenty of potential here with technologies such as solar hot-water systems or wave turbines. The organisation Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) specialises in this area because it is a cheap, effective way of fostering development for the world's poorest.

And development of existing technologies can be more effective and cheaper than the hi-tech route. For example, a comparison of attempts to improve the yield of sweet potato in Africa showed that while GM crop trials projected an increase of 18%, conventional methods (at much lower cost) had already achieved an increase of nearly 100%21.

The emphasis on technological solutions can also divert attention from effective non-technological solutions. One obvious example here is conflict. The Ministry of Defence currently only spends 6% of its budget on conflict prevention, while much of the rest is focussed on the development and deployment of military technology22.

However, it is important to remember that high technology can have a useful role if properly managed. Solar photo-voltaic cells are an advanced technology that can make an important contribution to replacing fossil-fuels in some parts of the world. The cost of these cells could be decreased significantly by the use of nanotechnology. But we need to give careful consideration to issues such as the safe production, use and disposal of nanoparticles.

Clearly, R&D could be much more balanced. For example, there could be more support for technological innovation based on less cutting-edge science. While some public R&D funding is beginning to be directed towards technologies and practices such as wave energy and organic farming, there is scope for a much greater shift. Interdisciplinary research, which looks at more than just the technological issues, should also be better supported. Furthermore, much more extensive research should be carried out on the possibly damaging effects of experimental new technologies. These changes could be facilitated by, for example, the Research Councils giving higher priority to environmental, human health and social concerns when deciding which projects to fund. In turn, this could be helped by having a much greater number of representatives from environmental and social groups sitting on the Research Councils' funding committees. The high levels of industry funding of R&D could be harnessed here as well. While direct industry funding of environmental and social assessment is likely to suffer all the pitfalls of bias discussed earlier, one possible alternative is mandatory funding of such studies via, for example, a tax on company profits from these technologies. This is unlikely to be popular with industry, but it is only right that they should pay as such profits can be very large.

Clearly, serious reforms are also needed to prevent the biasing of research results more generally. The first step is that all academic journals must insist on disclosure of any conflicts of interests, eg, funding from the company whose technology is under examination, so that readers can judge for themselves the extent of any bias. Currently only 1 in 200 scientific papers disclose possible conflicts of interest, although research shows that as many as 1 in 3 lead authors may be so compromised23. This has to change.


To conclude

The Government policy of encouraging very close links between academia and industry is eroding the independence of science and increasing the risks due to technology. Research which has commercial application has become the priority, while the more 'blue skies' work or that which may highlight potential problems of industrial activities (eg environmental assessment) is getting too little attention. Furthermore, academics who rely on industry funding are less able to give the impartial view on which society has come to depend. At the same time, the focus on cutting-edge technologies can increase the risks of unpredictable impacts.

There are many changes to science and technology policy which can help address these problems, from public funding of less experimental technologies to strong rules on the disclosure of possible conflicts of interests in academic journals. These changes are essential if we are to have science and technology which truly contribute to a better world.



Thanks to my colleagues at Scientists for Global Responsibility for their assistance in the writing and research for this talk, especially Dr Jon Goulding; Dr Chris Langley; Dr Eva Novotny; and Dr Philip Webber.



(links correct as of March 2004)

1 Figures from Tables 3.2 and 4.1. Office of Science and Technology (2003) Science, Engineering and Technology Statistics.

2 Table 5.1: ibid (Figures for contribution from overseas industry are estimated.)

3 Office of Science and Technology.

4 Derived from BBSRC website (2004)

5 BBC news online (2000) University attacked over 'tobacco money'. 5th December.

6 Rowell A. (2001) Hard rockers. The Guardian. 11th July.

7 Royal Society - Review of the Year (2003)

8 Office of Science and Technology (2004) Knowledge transfer/ exploitation funding.

9 Rowell A. (2003) Safe science is not always good science. The Guardian. 19th August.

10 Personal communication with Andrew Stirling (08/09/03)

11 Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Current Grants awarded by Agri-Food Committee. As quoted in Monbiot (2003) The enemies of science. The Guardian. 6th October.

12 p41 of ETC group (2003) The Big Down: From genomes to atoms.

13 p187 of Grimston M. & Beck P. (2002) Double or Quits?: The global future of civil nuclear energy. Earthscan.

14 Muttitt G. (2003) Degrees of Capture: Universities, the oil industry and climate change. Corporate Watch.

15 Stelfox H. T., Chua G., O'Rourke K., Detsky A. S. (1998). Conflict of interest in the debate over calcium-channel antagonists. New England Journal of Medicine, no 338 p101-6.

16 Olivieri N. F., Brittenham G. M., McLaren C. E., Templeton D. M., Cameron R. G., McClelland R. A., Burt A. D., and Fleming K. A. (1998). Long-term safety and effectiveness of iron-chelation therapy with deferiprone for thalassemia major. New England Journal of Medicine, no 339, p417-23.

17 van Kolfschooten F. (2002). Conflicts of interest: can you believe what you read? Nature, no 416, p360-3.

18 Goodess C. (2003) Stormy times for Climate Research. Scientists for Global Responsibility Newsletter, no 28, p13-14. /

19 p385-387 of Ponting C. (1991) A Green History of the World. Penguin.

20 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer website (2004)

21 diGrassi A. (2003) Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa. Third World Network, Africa.

22 Parliamentary Question tabled by Adam Price MP on behalf of the Peace Tax Campaign group Conscience. Conscience Update (2004) no 123. Winter.

23 Krimsky S., Rothenberg L.S. (2001). Science and Engineering Ethics, no. 7, p205-218; Krimsky S. et al (1996) Science and Engineering Ethics 2, 395-410: both cited in van Kolfschooten (2002) op cit 14


Filed under: