19 Sep 2005   |   Viewpoint

Guilt by association, an opinion

Scientists who follow government advice and take up links with industry could find that not everyone will see them in a positive light.

Scientists who follow government advice and take up links with industry could find that not everyone will see them in a positive light.

Across Europe there is economic pressure to get money from industry, and political pressure to help to bridge the gap between research and application. But if experience in the UK is anything to go by, then other scientists could be in for a rough ride  - even from journalists who should know better. For all too many people, working with industry is still seen not as positive entrepreneurship but as supping with the Devil.

The criticism often comes to a head in the mass media. Possibly the least intelligent aspect of the science coverage in recent years is the growing trend to "uncover" and "expose" scientists' links with industry. From national newspapers to the BBC, intrepid investigative journalists delight in shocking us with the news that eminent scientists who are advising the government on GM crops or publishing crucial research on vaccines are apparently in the pockets of industry - and that by implication cannot be trusted.

It's guilt by association, and the association need not be that direct, either. At the height of the recent furore on the Atkins diet, Susan Jebb, one of the UK's leading nutrition scientists, agreed to brief journalists on "faddy diets". The headlines were full of her concern that people who stay on Atkins for a long time are "gambling with their long-term health".

But then one newspaper reported the fact that the Medical Research Council had recently received money from the Flour Advisory Bureau, an industry body, for a study looking at the health benefits of carbohydrates. This funding amounted to £10,000, around 0.003 per cent of the MRC's annual grant from the government. But for the newspapers involved, the very existence of the industry grant was proof that Jebb's criticism of the Atkins diet was driven more by commercial interests than by her 20 years' experience as a research scientist.

And then there was the media attack on a highly respected scientist who has published research on the triple vaccine MMR -  because she happened to be on the same side as vaccine manufacturers in the legal challenge being mounted by opponents of the vaccine. And then came the undermining of a piece of research on genetically modified crops published in Nature because two of the scientists had done some completely separate consultancy for a biotech company. Entire funding bodies, and advisory panels on vaccines and GM, have been damned because of often tenuous links to industry.

The infuriating thing about these kinds of stories is that the journalists do not feel compelled to show how the link with industry has corrupted or skewed the science or the message. In many cases even a tiny bit of good, old-style investigative journalism would reveal no causal relationship.

The government wants scientists to have some contact with industry in order to make science more relevant to the needs of the economy. But it seems not to have given a thought to what the media or the public might make of this - something of an omission for an administration supposedly obsessed with spin. As a result of government policy, many public-sector researchers must seek a share of their funding from industry. Yet Jebb and others like her are then left defending themselves before a hostile and sceptical audience.

I am not a blind defender of industry or of science. I have never thought that the media's role is to be a cheerleader for science any more than for politics, economics or other aspects of national life. But for a journalist to imply that all industry is bad is as unintelligent and lazy as believing (as many seem to) that all non-profit activist organisations are good.

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