The public is much more skeptical of scientific research when an industry partner is involved — even one with a good reputation, according to a new study at Michigan State University.
So whether we are being warned about the latest health risks or told about the latest cure, we are much less likely to trust the findings when we suspect corporate interest.
The findings, published in PLOS ONE, could present scientists with the additional dilemma of finding alternative funding sources that won’t jeopardize the perceived integrity of their research.
“People have a hard time seeing research related to health risks as legitimate if done with a corporate partner,” said Dr. 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.”
For the study, participants were asked to observe a variety of research scenarios regarding subjects such as genetically modified foods and trans fats. Participants were randomly assigned to evaluate one of 15 different partnership scenarios that included varying combinations of scientists from a university, a government agency, a non-governmental organization, and a large food company.
The findings were clear: The public’s skepticism increased substantially when a food company was involved. In fact, in one portion of the study, 77 percent of participants who were asked to describe their views about this type of partnership scenario had something negative to say about it and questioned whether it could produce good results.
On the other hand, when the research did not include a corporate partner, only 28 percent of participants said something negative.
The new findings also show that this unfavorable perception didn’t change much, even if other entities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were included as additional partners.
“This tells us that you can’t just add organizations from various sectors and hope people will expect these partners to balance each other out,” Besley said.
Besley notes that scientists spend a good portion of their time trying to find the resources to pay for things like equipment, data collection, and staff for their research projects. And as federal and state funding may be decreasing, along with ever-increasing competition for grant dollars, this makes looking for alternative funding sources a priority.
“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.”
Source: Michigan State University