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Scientific Independence

How can the virtue of scientific independence be protected? Is there such a thing? Since the days of Leonardo da Vinci drawing up city fortifications for the Medici, there has been tension between the interests of the researcher and the desires of the people who pay their bills.

I recently spoke with a group of researchers who had been commissioned to examine the effects of a popular "natural" product claimed to be effective against cancer. They expressed a certain amount of relief that their findings did indicate at least some activity -- they were well aware of the pragmatic problems inherent in not producing the results the paying client wanted and the philosophical problems of maintaining scientific integrity.

There is no question that vested interest or self-interest can play a leading role. Tobacco company researchers have provided a glaring example of that. Even when scientific integrity is maintained, the researchers themselves do not necessarily control how their work is used. "Indicative" results for the quasi-therapeutic product mentioned above were extrapolated by one client to be much more significant than the scientists were prepared to support.

And then there is the argument that all science, whether funded publicly or privately, has its own vested interests, whether those of the individual scientists or the externally defined "flavour of the month" research areas. At what point should we become concerned? It's clear to see in the case of, say, tobacco company researchers, but how can we tell what pressures are operating in a more subtle fashion?

At least with acknowledged sources of potential bias -- such as information on who has funded the work, or which researchers hold paid positions with related organisations -- one has the chance to decide how much credence to put in the resulting statements.

It is unfortunate that this can be equally damning of those who do strive to maintain integrity and those who don't, but perhaps that's the price that has to be paid if you have a piper calling the tunes...

Vicki Hyde is the editor of New Zealand Science Monthly.