Book Review: Protecting Scientific Integrity

The Three Wise Men and the Three Monkeys

The Three Wise Men and the Three Monkeys by Raul de la Nuez

Thomas O. McGarity and Wendy E. Wagner. Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, viii + 384pp.

Scientists, whether employed by universities, government, industry, or research institutes, have all received an education based on a common set of principles and methodology. And they have all been exposed to the same corpus of knowledge unique to their discipline. The universality of science demands nothing less. A molecular biologist whether in China, Croatia, or Kenya reads the same core journals, uses identical nomenclature, and follows similar laboratory investigation techniques.

Nevertheless scientists conducting their work in different sectors of society are faced with different social and political contexts, and they may not exercise the same autonomy to investigate the natural world and report on their findings. In the United States, for example, government scientists who are expected to submit papers for talks and publications may be required to submit their papers to be vetted by policy members of their agency. In turn, the policy members may censor the language and conclusions prior to publication or distribution. This practice is illustrated by the recent controversies over “political editing” of scientific documents on global warming.

The rights and responsibilities of government and industry scientists are not as clear as they are for academic scientists. And while considerable attention is paid to academic freedom and investigator autonomy within universities, there too scientists can exercise self-censorship when they wish to please an external funder who has a financial or political interest in the outcome of their research.

Bending Science explores the multifarious ways that science has been distorted when its goals and practices are superseded by profits, issues of liability, politics, and industrial competitiveness. The book is structured around six core themes: “Shaping Science” (the use of contract research to acquire support for preexisting views); “Hiding Science” (suppressing knowledge that politically or economically motivated funders dislike); “Attacking Science” (manufacturing uncertainty around sound scientific results); “Harassing Scientists” (using litigation to force scientists to defend their published results in court); “Packaging Science” (selecting scientists to reach a predetermined outcome); and “Spinning Science” (reinterpreting or falsely interpreting scientific results to meet non-scientific agendas). A wealth of both vignettes and historical cases illustrate these six themes.

This book is a welcome addition to a new body of work that explores the ideological underpinnings of efforts to construct or reconstruct a scientific record by methods that compromise scientific integrity. Among this new generation of work I would include my own book Science in the Private Interest, Seth Shulman’s Undermining Science, David Michael’s Doubt Is Their Product, and Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science.

The authors, both law professors at the University of Texas, contribute a unique legal and regulatory perspective on current trends that compromise the integrity of and the public trust in science. A notable discussion is the conflict between trade secrecy and the public’s right to know. The conflict becomes palpable when companies negotiate out-of-court tort settlements that block public access to discovery documents that may provide valuable knowledge about certain products’ occupational or public health dangers. The authors question whether courts should accept non-disclosure agreements as easily as they have, rather than balancing corporate confidentiality against “the public interest in disclosure of policy-relevant scientific information” (p. 123).

Notwithstanding the voluminous cases of manipulated science presented in the book, the authors are clear that the practice is the exception and not the rule. “Independent scientists can and regularly do conduct policy-relevant research in a disinterested way, without input from affected parties or financial inducements that cause them to tilt or skew the research toward a particular end” (p. 65). Where I might find some disagreement with the authors is in their assessment of the extent and depth of the problem of “bending science.” They state, “Only when the stakes are very high and parties become desperate does the temptation to shape science sometimes become irresistible” (p. 65).

My reading of the effect that corporate sponsorship of research has on tilting science is far less optimistic. Consider a 2005 Nature survey funded by the National Institutes of Health in which several thousand early- and mid-career scientists in the United States were asked to report on their own behaviors. When asked whether they ever change the design, methodology, or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source, 20.5% mid-career scientists and 9.5% early-career scientists answered affirmatively. These and other studies show the extent to which corporate sponsorship and political censorship have contaminated the scientific record.