Conflicts of Interests in Science
Most of people whom ever read a scientific article, be it by choice or obligation, should have noticed this sentence, most likely before kicking off the festivities:
The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
This sentence, which appears as an automatic formula, deserves a short discussion, as in these few words lies a huge deal of questions on ethics and scientific conduct, especially in our mad modern world.
In its enterprise to understand the natural world, Science has knowledge and discovery for sole purposes. Science is foreign to the logic of benefit, cost and maximum profit that rules currently our modern, globalized and wild-financial world. This is a reason why dedicating a life to Science is a noble thing to do.
Yet nobleness is never acquired, and stick to it along a scientific career is a tortuous road to take, where the gulches and crevices are tricky situations called “conflicts of interests”.
The concept of conflict of interest is quite simple and self-explanatory. Back in the years, I was playing rugby in a small club. There I spent a fair time sitting on the bench as a substitute, as I happened to play at the same position as Trevor(*), who happened to be the son of Bernard, who happened to be the Coach (and garbage collector in life by the way, I hope he still is).
This is a simple and clear example of conflict of interest, which also help to understand my interest for the topic.
Conflicts of interest exists as well in Science, where they obviously can have consequences far more concerning for most of the people. Here comes an illustration of this :
Three years ago, a probity inquiry was ordered by the Australian environment minister, concerning two members of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). This authority is in charge of preserving and managing the Great Barrier Reef, a jewel of the marine world. Surprisingly, the GBRMPA had accepted at this time a dumping of dredging spoil in the Great Barrier Reef waters. In case of wonders, dredge spoil is the sediment, rocks and everything from the sea-bottom you get when drilling for mining activity. It is always a problem to know where to dump all of that, except when a friendly environmental authority prove itself comprehensive towards your helpless mining company, and allow you to dump it in the waters of highly riches, complexes and precious ecosystems. Despite the countless evidences proving the impacts of such practice.
Funnily enough, Tony Mooney and Jon Grayson, the two GBRMPA board afore-mentioned, respectively own shareholdings in the Gasfield and Waste Services Company and the mining company Guildford Coal.
Nothing we know could allow us to say anything more and draw conclusions here, but nothing either should prevent us from having a critical thinking, whatever is the situation. When coming to the subject of conflict of interests, curious coincidences are often
Everything in our society is more or less tangled in the tentacles of money. Science cannot escape it, and is actually more and more dependent on funding to fulfill objectives, in every field. In fact, as explained in Luca’s lecture of yesterday, increasing technology scientists rely on triggers swelling costs. Added to that, science expand constantly and as the known increases linearly, the unknown increases exponentially. Hence a constantly growing scientific community, more researchers, more students, more projects, all of them desperate for more funding. Here is an example, amongst heaps, of how funding can cause conflict of interest in science:
It is now widely recognized that underwater noise pollution harms marine mammals, who rely hugely on their acoustic abilities. Knowing that, In 2010 Lucie Wade and her colleagues decided to understand why some papers cleared US Navy’s sonars from prosecution for this matter, while it is likely they are no music to aquatic ears knowing the violence of those sonar’s signals.
You might have smelt it already… a curious coincidence is hidden just around the corner.
As exposed in Wade’s paper, US Navy funds approximatively 50% of marine mammal research, through organisms such as the Office of Naval research. No surprises that a particular emphasis is put on research on noise pollution.
Once again, there is no tangible evidence for accusations of any sort here, at least after searching very briefly the web. US Navy could as well be genuinely interested in mammals, without any relationships to the sonars of its ships, and especially not the slightest intention to influence scientists to claim they aren’t hurting mammals that bad, after all.
However, beware of conspiracy theories. In an interesting article, the scientific journalist Brandon Keim discusses conflicts of interests in bio-medical science with a balanced view. He reminds that a conflict of interest is not enough to throw scientific results to trash. Most of scientists don’t have the luxury to refuse money, and yet their research can provide great and needed knowledge. Despite being submitted to pressure, from funders or other, a scientist will always be free to perform ethical and quality research, and provide reliable results.
Not only money affect judgement and behaviour. Affective relationships can be a major issue in science too. Dating your supervisor before your thesis presentation, reviewing an article from your stepmom… tough situations to handle.
In the end, effect of conflict of interests on research are highly dependent on the scientist, and its integrity. The point is to be aware of the different interests driving our action and as scientists, our research. Conflict of interests is the meeting of science and personal values, and therefore are personal.
Self-questioning appears an essential white-flag to put an end to this kind of conflict. Whatever the questions, whatever the answers, the one thing that matters is inner peace, exactly like in Kung-Fu.
Wade, L., Whitehead, H., & Weilgart, L. (2010). Conflict of interest in research on anthropogenic noise and marine mammals: Does funding bias conclusions?. Marine Policy, 34(2), 320-327.
Wired article, Brandon Keim : https://www.wired.com/2007/10/when-is-a-confl/