October 17, 2013 12:14 am

Finding an element of trust

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Do you trust business? Which societal groups do you trust most? Usually scientists and doctors rank very highly in opinion polls, while industry turns up near the bottom.

Journalists and politicians rank even lower, but still the polls reflect a widespread uneasiness when dealing with industry and business generally. Such views damage the climate for innovation.

There is a widespread belief that publicly funded research is “good”, while industry-funded research is “bad”. The latter is not seen as impartial, even if industrial researchers publish in the same peer-reviewed journals as academics, often in partnership with researchers from universities.

Lately, the contacts scientists have with industry have come under scrutiny. There has been increasing pressure from NGOs and lobby groups asking that scientists “with industry relations” should be excluded from advisory panels of the European Commission and its agencies, such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma or the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in London, saying that they would not be able to act as independent experts.

It has been research policy for many years, and rightly so, to foster relations between industry and academia to bring these two worlds closer together. Only through such dialogue can we accelerate the transfer of knowledge to the market to create products for a better life and raise European competitiveness.

It is one way to ensure taxpayers get a return on their investment in academic research.

Removing scientists who work with industry from advisory panels would not only demotivate them to work with industry and to provide advice, but it would also cut off expertise we need to develop evidence-based policies.

At the bottom of all of this is a fundamental mistrust of industry and industrial R&D by society – and this mistrust is increasingly hampering our ability to innovate.

We trust industry where it suits us: in the toothpaste we use, the pizza we buy or the car we drive. But people seem to have a problem in trusting industry when it comes to influencing policy making. Why is this so?

A large part of the problem is rooted in the way industry has behaved and – partly – continues to behave when doing business and talking to the public. One example is the debate about genetically modified organisms. If we dissect the anti-GMO arguments, it appears that most Europeans do not have a problem with GM technology per se – taking a gene from one place and putting it in another. We have done this for millennia, albeit on a trial and error basis, we just called it selective breeding.

The problem people have with GM seems to be more one of business ethics. It is about multinational companies controlling our food and showing aggressive marketing behaviour. There are similar examples in energy and pharmaceuticals.

If this is the problem, let us talk about it – and here we expect industry to engage with its critics and examine its practices.

Society, which pays for research, should have a say in how it is used. And we expect the same from NGOs.

Anne Glover

Anne Glover: transparency

We need transparency on all sides. With freedom of information legislation, ombudsmen and formal public engagement procedures, the public sphere has done a lot to be transparent.

Science has led the way, because publishing based on peer review is a fundamental principle. Yes, there can be actual or perceived conflicts of interest in a complex world. But there are also clear ways of handling them, such as declaring them in a public manner. It is not rocket science.

When was the last time you used Wikipedia? If you trusted the information, did you read who wrote the article and try to find her or his conflict of interest statement? No, you did not. In fact, there are no such statements on Wikipedia and you cannot see whether the article was written by an industry representative, a scientist or a high school student.

We trust it because it is open to all, and we believe that the collective brain is able to sort out the misinformation (which also exists on Wikipedia).

So why not apply this principle to policy making without any taboos as to who contributes? That is what we would call “open policy making”.

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Anne Glover is chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, and Jan Marco Müller, is assistant to the chief scientific adviser

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