By Eryn Slankster-Schmierer, PhD on April 8, 2021
Industry science unapologetically profits off of academic grunt work.
Academics are the underappreciated foundation that allows pharmaceutical companies to succeed. According to National Science Foundation, nearly half of academic research in the US is covered by government funding. Every lab I’m aware of received some federal grant funding, not to mention basic state and federal funds allocated for general university upkeep. As an agreement for using government funding, this academic research is published at the expense of academics, and made publicly available to the scientific community to further progress the collective scientific knowledge.
Whether or not a pharmaceutical company receives direct funding from the government is moot. Pharmaceutical companies use and cite this publicly available research as a foundation for their own product research and development. These private companies then hastily patent protect their own work, withholding their findings from the rest of the scientific community that they just profited from. Industry relies on academia and open-sourced science, but it’s rarely a symbiotic relationship.
Capitalism in science creates unavoidable bias.
All research is inherently biased. Researchers propose hypothesis, and they seek to support their own hypothesis. No one likes to be wrong, not even scientists. Moreover, scientific funding is not done by a lottery; agencies inevitably show a bias by selecting the hypotheses they dub worthy of funding. These unavoidable biases effect all scientists, but industry complicates this by selling a product for monetary gain. Academics, on the other hand, seek their payment in the form of publication. It doesn’t (-eh, it shouldn’t) really matter if they prove their hypothesis wrong and switch their research direction. Results are results, and publications are currency in academia.
Ideally, industry supported researchers publish papers that support their hypotheses, but what if the research yields no significant results, or worse yet, opposite of the hypothesis? Are you willing to publish incriminating data on your own funding agencies product? Are you willing to tell your boss that your research yielded no “significant” results again, for the third experiment in a row? What if a million-dollar grant was on the line? These sorts of pressures put strain on scientists to ignore or omit inconvenient data, or even desperately stretch for convenient truths.
In a result driven system, those that get results succeed; but I am telling you right now, the results you want don’t always come. This system is set up to encourage fabrication. If you’re struggling to get results and you perceive your job is at risk, the ethical line between your science and fabrication/falsification will get thinner and thinner. And the one who gives into this temptation (without getting caught) is fiscally rewarded.
In the words of a great friend of mine, “The wrong people get all the money; salary is increasing in all industries but not in [academia] and education.” Government funding puts a cap on salaries, certainly for graduate students and postdocs (Here I talked about The Exploitation of Human Labor in American Science), but also for the principle investigator. These sort of caps, along with the increasing difficulty of obtaining government funding, encourage PIs to seek private funding. Those that score the most independent funding are financially rewarded with higher salaries, and in my opinion, are more likely to succumb to biased science.
Unconditional funding supports unbiased results and holds industry accountable
Unquestionably, the benefit of industrial science is productivity. Increased profit yields more scientists on payroll, increased resources, and rapid, goal driven results. But at the risk of lower productivity, academia -or a system with an unconditional salary- would provide a much greater chance of ethical science.
Another problem in our system today is that no one is willing to fund reproducibility in science. Funding is given to novel ideas, and there is nothing novel about reproducing someone else’s work. When research is done by a financially motivated or otherwise biased industry, it could be invaluable to have a third party reproduce the results.
I’m not saying I have the answers to all of science’s problems, but what I do know, is bias encourages unethical behavior. There will always be a bias when pride is involved, but if we remove the fear of monetary failure, we can remove one tremendous source of bias. I guess what I’m saying is to fight capitalism with capitalism. We need the fast-paced industry driven results, but we also need the ethics-based wholesomeness of academics to check their science and keep them accountable. To keep scientists in academia, America needs to pay our academic scientists competitive wages, and they need to make funding less impossible to get. Otherwise, all we’ll have left is biased science.