Although some interest groups voice concern that a new University research center may succumb to the influence of corporations that provide part of its funding, University scientists say that proper safeguards are in place to maintain the center’s independence.
After several years of planning, the University opened a new Center for Risk Science and Communication last month, citing a need for more research assessing and communicating the potential risks involved with industrial products.
Director of the center, David Garabrant, a professor of occupational medicine and epidemiology, said the center – a division of the School of Public Health – will focus on researching the risks that industrial chemicals and pollutants present to people and the environment.
Throughout the next year, the center will be developing research projects and applying for funding from a wide variety of sources, including government grants, regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, private foundations and industrial partners, he said.
While Garabrant said diversity of funding will help the center “achieve balance and maintain independence,” some interest groups are particularly concerned with the partnership between industry and universities conducting risk-science research.
In January 2003, a group of Yale University researchers published an article in Journal of the American Medical Association that said risk-assessment projects funded by industry tend to release results favorable to companies more often than studies funded by the government or other non-affiliated sources.
Harvard University has faced criticism for similar reasons in the past. Criticism of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis arose in 2001 after then-director John Graham – a speaker at a symposium opening the University of Michigan’s risk center – was nominated by President Bush to a key regulatory position in the Office of Management and Budget. Interest groups like OMB Watch accused Graham of relying heavily on corporate funding and consistently opposing almost any regulation on industry.
Merrill Goozner, director of the Integrity in Science Project, a group that administers a database detailing researchers’ ties to corporate funding, said companies’ influence on academic research projects can often be subtle, even subconscious. Researchers getting industrial funding are more likely to develop study protocols that favor the company’s product.
“When you’re dealing with complicated scientific questions, minor subtle changes can have a major impact,” he said.
Additionally, Integrity in Science claims that companies try to delay or prevent publication of results that criticize their products and that researchers occasionally withhold publishing such studies for fear of losing corporate support.
Goozner said solutions to reducing academic-industrial ties include requiring university researchers to disclose all funding sources and to provide other scientists with access to all data.
He also said the government must increase funding for risk assessment research. “We need independent sources of research funding,” he said.
But Garabrant said corporate funding has not influenced any of his research, and he points to a study he conducted funded by Rohm and Haas