Mistrust of businesses is at the core of many people’s fear about GM (and if we’re honest, much of this is directed at Monsanto). This of course spills over into mistrust of academic scientists, especially those who are funded by industry or collaborate with industry.
Whilst many of the claims made against scientists funded by industry are false, and often offensive, it is an important topic. We need to understand any biases created by industry involvement and work to minimise them. Studies on this are disturbingly rare, so I was very pleased to be sent a new paper about conflicts of interest.
This looked specifically at Bt crops, both at the efficacy (do they work) and the durability (does this last). The outcome of studies on Bt crops was compared to whether these studies had any ties to industry, either industry funding or an author from industry.
The authors found that a higher proportion of papers with a conflict of interest had outcomes favourable to the GM crop company, compared with papers with no conflict of interest.
Although concerning, this doesn’t necessarily mean that industry funding affects results. Correlation, after all, isn’t the same as causation.
It could be, for example, that if studies had unfavourable results then industry scientists would ask not to be on the authorship. The study would still be published, but we have no way of identifying that industry was involved.
In specific instance of Bt crops, studies on efficacy were more likely to be positive than studies on durability. Companies may promote research on efficacy rather than durability, so indirectly increasing the frequency of favorable outcomes for papers with industry connections.
There is also the worrying possibility that unfavourable outcomes are less likely to be published if there is industry involvement. We know it’s a problem in the pharmaceutical industry, with clinical trials going unreported if they don’t show the desired result. More research would be needed before we could draw this conclusion for GM crops.
The authors discuss the limitations of the study (it’s just on one particular area, it doesn’t take other biases such as ideology into account etc). But they also believe that, whilst the details may differ, the link between conflicts of interest and the outcome of the study would remain. This is unsurprising, given that it has been found in industries such as pharma, sugar and tobacco.
The answer is definitely not ‘get rid of industry ties’. It’s appropriate that industry scientists publish their results, and also that industry should make financial contributions to academic research (on this point another article also sent to me by @HStiles1, the librarian that every researcher should know, is worth a read).
The authors of this study presented an idea which, whilst it wouldn’t solve the problem, could be of enormous benefit. Instead of directly funding individual research projects, businesses could pay into a common pot along with other stakeholders such as NGOs and government. This funding would get allocated by an independent agency. Bring it on!
Reference: Guillemaud, T., Lombaert, E., & Bourguet, D. (2016). "Conflicts of Interest in GM Bt Crop Efficacy and Durability Studies," PLOS ONE, 11 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0167777