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Funding Can Taint Findings

January 24, 2003

Last month, a study by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute showed that diuretics were better at alleviating high blood pressure than newer, far more expensive drugs such as calcium channel blockers. It took a federally funded study, after years of studies lauding channel blockers, to uncover that. A New England Journal of Medicine review of those favorable studies found that 96% of the researchers received money from the drugs' makers. The folks footing the bill for scientific research too often get exactly what they want. With industry supplying nearly two-thirds of the medical research money in the United States, that means more studies that boost industry in ways both subtle and blatant.

A new Yale University study finds that when businesses, rather than other groups, sponsor medical research at hospitals and colleges, the outcomes are 3.6 times more likely to favor the company involved. The Yale study -- not funded by business -- puts together an unlovely picture of what happens when researchers have financial ties to the subject of their research.

The correlation between funding and findings makes it easy to understand why consumer groups greeted with skepticism a study this week from the American Assn. of Neurological Surgeons that found no link between roller coasters and brain injury. The study's sponsor was Six Flags, owner of the ever-more-turbulent rides at Magic Mountain and other parks.

This rush for business dollars -- once anathema to academic and medical researchers -- extends far beyond medicine.

ExxonMobil is putting $100 million into the new Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University. The project's agenda is developing ways to combat the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels. But ExxonMobil and other sponsoring companies have the authority to approve the research topics, and the oil giant is no fan of renewable energy or limits on carbon dioxide emissions. A company official said Stanford was chosen in part because it is known for working with business and because the professors were open to changing their career directions to join the project.

Public spending on medical research has doubled in the last five years but cannot keep up with corporations intent on buying academic credibility. Researchers can raise the bar by setting standards and urging companies to fund studies through independent foundations.

Journals and the popular media should ask for, and prominently publish, funding sources and amounts whenever they report on new research. The forces shaping science also shape public policy and medical practice.

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