Protecting Scientific Integrity

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Money will always talk, but it shouldn't be allowed to compromise scientific integrity.

Today’s society faces unprecedented challenges, and we need accurate answers to many questions if we hope to make wise decisions about our future. Is global warming really happening? How fast is the Earth’s population growing? When will we run out of oil? The best way?—?probably the only way?—?to answer these vital questions is to rely on independent scientific research for guidance.

Over the past several centuries, science has enabled humans to do great things. But in recent history, a problem has developed. Interference, undue influence, and big money from vested interests have tainted scientific research at our universities and government research centers, thereby undermining scientific integrity. Our institutions are no longer able to ensure that their scientists have the independence that is essential to producing trustworthy scientific information.

There will always be disagreement and debate about the validity of research findings and their interpretations. And there will always be vested interests eager to influence research, either to protect their status quo or to promote new technologies. But when we allow those vested interests too much influence, it becomes impossible for us to separate fact from fiction.

Here’s a recent example that’s particularly troubling: Twenty-six corn researchers complained to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that they do not have free access to study the controversial genetically engineered corn varieties now widely grown in the United States. Researchers must request permission from the companies that own these varieties in order to study them. Sometimes permission is denied, or the companies insist on reviewing research before it is published.

Hundreds of similar examples of interference have been documented. The Union of Concerned Scientists?—?a leading nonprofit focused on this issue?—?has issued several reports outlining problems at the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies. One survey uncovered evidence of widespread political interference in climate change science conducted by federal researchers. No wonder some people still think global warming is a hoax!

The problem is not just in the government arena. University researchers report that they have to be careful about what work they choose to do, in case they anger the industries that often provide large donations to the universities. “Some projects could be career suicide for us,” one Kansas State University agriculture professor told us. At Harvard Medical School, students and faculty recently protested industry influence after it was revealed that 1,600 professors and lecturers had ties to businesses related to their academic work.

Whenever corporate or partisan political interests are allowed to interfere with science, the public loses. Independent science is the best tool available to help us solve the challenges we face. If we do not protect scientific integrity, we will become confused, angry, polarized, and unable to make the right choices to build a secure future.

To learn more about this issue and take action, go to What You Can Do from the Union of Concerned Scientists.