Opinion: Purchasing facts, or the conflation of lobbyism and research | Opinion | DW | 31.01.2018
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Opinion: Purchasing facts, or the conflation of lobbyism and research

Are experiments on humans unethical? Well, would you take medicine that had only been tested on mice? Judith Hartl says her problem is with the corporate sponsorship of tests sold to the public as scientific research.

Would I do it again? Sure. Though perhaps I wouldn't participate in the same drug studies that I was a part of as a student. I'm probably too old for that anyhow, and these days I would likely consider how such tests would affect my health.

But at the time, I didn't ask such questions. I applied creams to my skin, had my facial expressions scanned and cables hooked up to my body. I ran on a treadmill with an insufficient supply of oxygen, and even swallowed experimental pills. I was paid for it all, and always felt as if I was being taken care of. For a long time, I was one of millions of people who volunteered to take part in studies without which medical research would be impossible. 

At some point, every drug has to be tested on humans: every new painkiller, eye drop and anti-inflammation cream. But before such drugs can be tested on people, the drugs have gone through a series of strict tests. Requirements must be met, ethics and supervisory authorities must give their approval. Scientists also depend on human subjects for studies on depression, air pollution, sleep disturbances, anxiety and even the chewing habits of obese people.

When corporate interests become part of the equation

None of those are human experiments; rather, they are scientific studies that benefit all of us.

Judith Hartl is head of DW's science department

Judith Hartl is head of DW's science department

Such tests only become problematic when certain corporate interests become part of the equation. When companies, lobbyists or entire business sectors want to put their products or activities in a more positive light — or seek to shed a negative image — using supposedly scientific methods.

Alcohol, sugar and meat are such products, and appear frequently in absurd studies that journalists often fail to call into question. 

The announcement that red wine (up to a bottle a day!) is good for your heart, or beer is good for your kidneys are just two glaring examples. Inaccurate methodology and false conclusions deliver the results that sponsors desire. Suddenly, we learn that chocolate protects us against cancer, meat against strokes and cabernet sauvignon against heart attacks. And no, sugar apparently does not make you fat.

Lobbyist sponsored studies are not isolated cases

Just who sponsors such tests is no secret – sponsors' names appear clearly in scientific journals. It might be Mars, Coca-Cola, Bayer, or as in the most recent case with Volkswagen, the now-disbanded EUGT. But with the EUGT, one has to look very closely to decipher just who is behind the German acronym.

At first, the European Research Group of Environment and Health in the Transport Sector sounds like a serious organization. Who in the world would suspect that a lobbying group for Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler and Bosch is actually behind it?

Read moreVW, BMW and Daimler denounce toxic diesel fume tests on monkeys

Such supposedly scientific studies carried out in the name of corporate interests abuse their subjects; in fact, they instrumentalize them. Such studies are not carried out to help people, but rather to help sponsors increase profits. Researchers who accept such sponsorship put their most valuable asset at risk — namely, their credibility.

I have personally witnessed the fact that such conflations of corporate interests and scientific research are not uncommon. As a biology student, I wrote my doctoral thesis for a major pharmaceutical company. I worked closely with the company while I attended university, testing insecticides to find out just how dangerous the poison was for plants, animals, soil and water. My findings became part of the scientific evaluation of that particular chemical.

Throughout the process, I often found myself thinking about my "sponsor's" interests. Nevertheless, I declined the job offer that I received from the pharmaceutical giant when I finished my research.

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