A new study has revealed that at least when it comes to health risks or medicine, most people don’t believe studies associated with an industrial partner, even one with a good reputation.

No one really loves corporations, however, they do play a vital role in society — and in science. But at what cost? Image credits: takomabibelot.

In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a disturbing trend of anti-intellectualism. People don’t believe the experts, they don’t want science, and would often take their news and information from click bait Facebook posts or articles. Science isn’t really quick to react and scientists rarely aim to grab your attention with catchy headlines, so this problem is likely going to stick with us for a long time. However, if there is something scientists are good at, it’s figuring stuff out — and they recently showed that one of the mechanisms which erode trust in science is partnerships with industry.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that most people dislike big companies, but the effect through which this dislike carries onto science is still not properly explored. Many health studies have a corporate partner or involve some kind of drug or treatment method developed by a corporation; how impactful are these associations?

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“People have a hard time seeing research related to health risks as legitimate if done with a corporate partner,” said John Besley, lead author and an associate professor who studies the public’s perception of science. “This initial study was meant to understand the scope of the problem. Our long-term goal though is to develop a set of principles so that quality research that’s tied to a company will be better perceived by the public.”

In Besley’s study, participants were randomly assigned to evaluate one of 15 scenarios which included various partnerships between scientists from a university, a government agency, a non-governmental organization, and a large food company. Basically, participants were presented the same study on genetically modified foods and trans fats, but featuring various partnerships of the author.

The results clearly showed that people tended to dislike and distrust the science when the food company was involved. In fact, 77 percent of participants had something negative to say about this association and questioned the quality of the produced results. At the other side, only 28 percent of participants said something negative when a corporate partner wasn’t present. Additional partners, even reliable ones such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, didn’t change these values significantly.

What this tells us is pretty simple: even if you do some quality science, there’s a good chance people won’t believe you because you got money from a company. This is understandable to some extent and you’d be tempted to say — “OK, scientists simply shouldn’t partner up with corporations” and that’s that. But then… where are you supposed to get funding money from? In the US, the funding leash is getting shorter and shorter, and there’s virtually no branch of science which isn’t getting significant funding from industry. Much of the science happening today is also trans-disciplinary and benefits from multiple actors involved. The study explains:

“University scientists conducting research on topics of potential health concern often want to partner with a range of actors, including government entities, non-governmental organizations, and private enterprises. Such partnerships can provide access to needed resources, including funding. However, those who observe the results of such partnerships may judge those results based on who is involved.”

So you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place — either risk the public not believing in your research or just never get the money you need in the first place. It’s a challenging time to be a researcher.

“Ultimately, the hope is to find some way to ensure quality research isn’t rejected just because of who is involved,” Besley said. “But for now, it looks like it may take a lot of work by scientists who want to use corporate resources for their studies to convince others that such ties aren’t affecting the quality of their research.”

Journal Reference: John C. Besley , Aaron M. McCright, Nagwan R. Zahry, Kevin C. Elliott, Norbert E. Kaminski, Joseph D. Martin — Perceived conflict of interest in health science partnerships. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0175643