The latest row over the credibility of evidence which says that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent safer than smoking tobacco shows yet again just how careful one has to be over the integrity of academic research.
The Lancet – http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2815%2900042-2/fulltext – argues that this conclusion depends, at least in part, on a study that itself relies heavily on evidence produced by industry-funded scientists.
This allegation was seized on gleefully by the British press, with the Daily Mail proclaiming: “E-cigarette industry funded experts who ruled vaping is safe.”
Others turned on The Lancet, with the Spectator accusing the magazine’s editors of “shooting the messenger” rather than addressing the evidence provided by the research.
It is not for me to judge the credibility of the respective arguments – I am interested whether the research carried out by academics, consultants and think tanks is genuinely independent. If this had been the first instance where an academic had been too close to a commercial organisation, then one could back the Spectator’s view that this was “shooting the messenger.”
However, I have tracked a number of instances where links appear to be too close – and many more distinguished people than me are worried about this and the way in which lobbies distort the findings of research to suit their own interests.
One of my recent blogs summarises this – https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/how-academic-research-gets-distorted/
The solution is not to set lots of compliance standards and force every researcher to produce lists of their commercial interests. That would simply provide extra work for compliance officers and that most-evil trade the lawyers.
The solution lies in our own hands. Whenever we see research, we should ask starting questions>
For example, do the universities have commercial sponsors, whose views just happen to coincide with the research findings? Do the researchers have a track record of supporting a particular view on a subject? Do the academics have a commercial company whose interests will benefit from the findings of the research?
Simply adopt this motto: Take nothing at face value.