Article published in NATURE, 10 May, 2012:
Beware the creeping cracks of bias
Evidence is mounting that research is riddled with systematic errors. Left unchecked, this could erode public trust, warns Daniel Sarewitz.
10 MAY 2012 VOL 485 NATURE 149
Alarming cracks are starting to penetrate deep into the scientific edifice. They threaten the status of science and its value to society. And they cannot be blamed on the usual suspects — inadequate funding, misconduct, political interference, an illiterate public. Their cause is bias, and the threat they pose goes to the heart of research.
Bias is an inescapable element of research, especially in fields such as biomedicine that strive to isolate cause–effect relations in complex systems in which relevant variables and phenomena can never be fully identified or characterized. Yet if biases were random, then multiple studies ought to converge on truth. Evidence is mounting that biases are not random. A Comment in Nature in March reported that researchers at Amgen were able to confirm the results of only six of 53 ‘landmark studies’ in preclinical cancer research (C. G. Begley & L. M. Ellis Nature 483, 531–533; 2012). For more than a decade, and with increasing frequency, scientists and journalists have pointed out similar problems… The first step is to face up to the problem — before the cracks undermine the very foundations of science.
Daniel Sarewitz is co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, and is based in Washington
The problem of industry biasing research was examined in a 2012 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Their analysis examined the effect on scientific inquiry when powerful corporate interests are involved in research. The report found that corporations “exert influence at every step of the scientific and policy-making processes, often to shape decisions in their favour or avoid regulation and monitoring of their products and by-products at the public’s expense”.
The report highlighted five ways how corporations are able to influence scientific inquiry:
1. Terminating and suppressing unfavourable research
2. Intimidating or coercing scientists and academic institutions into silence with threats of litigation and loss of jobs/contracts
3. Manipulating study designs and research protocols
4. Ghostwriting scientific journal articles that actually promote their products.
5. Publication bias (selectively publishing positive results and burying or under-reporting negative results)
Union of Concerned Scientists, Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public’s Expense, Feb. 2012, http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/abuses_of_science/how-corporations-corrupt-science.html
With the above articles in mind, consider the implications for bioelectromagnetics research in Australia. This area of research is centred at The Bioelectromagnetics Research Group, which is part of the Brain and Psychological Sciences Research Centre at Swinbourne University of Technology based in Victoria. To quote from the university website:
The Bioelectromagnetics Research Group explores biological and health effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) such as produced by mobile phones, broadcast towers and power lines, particularly how this may affect the brain. It incorporates measurement and analytical tools for assessing EMF exposures in the environment and inside living systems, and an in-vitro laboratory (the Cellular Neuroscience laboratory) for conducting biological experiments. The centrepiece of the Group is the Radiofrequency Dosimetry Laboratory. Specific research interests include EMF safety exposure assessments, complex modelling of EMF and thermal patterns inside living systems, bioelectromagnetic cellular studies and biophysical aspects of neurophysiological equipment.
Note that the Radiofrequency Dosimetry Laboratory is jointly funded by Telstra Corporation and the University and consists of equipment formerly used by the Telstra EME Safety group. As well as being available for research projects it is used by Telstra for checking compliance of Telstra’s assets with several Team Telstra employees assigned to the Lab.
Not only does Telstra use the laboratory for their own purposes but they are also directly involved with the Bioelectromagnetics Research Group in membership and funding.
If this close working relationship between Telstra wasn’t enough, the Chancellor of Swinbourne University, Mr. Bill Scales (2005-present) was previously Telstra’s Group Managing Director, Regulatory, Corporate and Human Relations, and Chief of Staff at Telstra. He was also Telstra’s Director of IBM Global Services Australia Ltd. and a Director of the Telstra Foundation.
Rather than fostering academic independence, Swinbourne has a long history of working along side industry with a program of Industry-Based Learning that was introduced into Swinburne engineering programs in the 1960s. To quote:
Swinburne’s industry connections extend well beyond the classroom. We collaborate with industry from the earliest stages of research through to commercialisation, drawing on partnerships for resources, financial support and industry-based expertise. We also deliver customised training and short courses to businesses and organisations. Swinburne is a leader in the delivery of workplace training, with more than 15,000 students studying in their workplace. Our students also benefit from relevant and effective industry engaged learning, such as taking an Industry-Based Learning placement as part of their course, working for host organisations. Industry representatives sit on our course advisory boards, ensuring curriculum anticipates the future needs of industry so we can help develop work-ready graduates.
Swinbourne University may well be a suitable academic institution for meeting the needs of industry by conducting product development research and training graduates for a future career in industry. However an academic institution that is focussed on what industry needs is arguably a highly unsuitable place for conducting research that may pose a risk to an industry partner! This should be especially the case when that partner (Telstra) has previously stated in writing its concerns over research which could established a link between its activities and adverse health effects thereby exposing it to possible liability or negatively affecting its operations.
This is bias on a mammoth scale which unfortunately has become the norm for bioelectromagnetics research generally. In fact, if you examine the speakers at the forthcoming June 2012 BEMS conference in Brisbane, bias certainly is no barrier to advancement, In fact it seems to be a handy job requirement!
As Daniel Sarewitz said in his NATURE article “he first step is to face up to the problem — before the cracks undermine the very foundations of science”.
Unfortunately for independent scientific inquiry, the Bioelectromagnetics foundations are not only eroded but have long since been washed away in a tsunami of conflicted interests.Leave a reply →