In her blog, the American nutrition professor Marion Nestle lists a number of purchased research studies, including research that claims chocolate lowers blood pressure.

Can research be too close to a company?

Svenska 2016-02-16

People often see benefits to society when academia and industry cooperate. But can this cooperation become too close? Just how independent are researchers who are funded by industry?

People often see benefits to society when academia and industry cooperate. But can this cooperation become too close? Just how independent are researchers who are funded by industry? Read the first of five articles on research funded by companies and private funds.

The importance of cooperation between academia and industry has been stressed by the current and the previous government, to create growth and manage social challenges. This interaction may have many different forms, from the exchange of knowledge between an HEI and a company to cooperative research that is co-financed by an external party, as well as commissioned research.

There are many examples, especially in technology and pharmaceuticals but also companies such as Ikea, H&M, SkiStar and L’Oréal fund research in different ways.

“For many companies there is an untapped potential in the academic world. Academia is often way ahead of industry in terms of development,” says Fredrik Törn, doctor of business economics who has previously researched into marketing and brand communication at the Stockholm School of Economics. He is now the head of Customer Insight at Coop – a company that sponsors research on sustainable communication at KTH, which, it is hoped, will benefit the company.

Control of the research process

It is easy to see that businesses have much to gain through cooperation, but the question is what effects this has on research.

“The sponsorship in itself is not the problem. It is the control of the research process and publishing process that is really important,” says Gert Helgesson, professor of medical ethics at Karolinska Institutet.

In the simplest case, there is a shared interest from the researcher’s part as well as the financing company, such as what material allows the best design in a given situation. Research interests then coincides with industrial interests – when you just want to know what actually works best and then apply the knowledge.

Problems start to arise when the research is no longer neutral, such as when a company wants to show that its own product is best, says Gert Helgesson.

“There will be problems of credibility if the sponsoring company clearly has a special interest. The potential risk can be reduced by clear contracts between researchers and clients, but it can’t be completely eliminated.”

Risk of unconscious adaptation

Even if the funder does not try to control or interfere with the research, there is a risk that the researcher interprets results to the benefit of the company.

“Perhaps not deliberately, but it is easy to unconsciously adapt the results to the interests of the funder, because we want to have continued funding. You see what you want to see. There is such a tendency, in all possible contexts, that values and desires affect people’s assessments of facts.”

He is doubtful about cooperation agreements in which academic research is directly connected to a company that wants to make a product sell.

“I am not at all sure that this type of collaboration is the smartest path towards applicable technology development,” he says, pointing out that many important products are based on research which was NOT carried out for a specific purpose.

One example is the use of tougher glass for mobile phones, which makes them less delicate. This type of glass was developed in the 1960s, long before mobile phones, and had no area of use at the time.

The positive effects of collaboration

At the same time, collaborative research contributes to positive effects, both inside and outside the place of learning, according to studies by Vinnova – which has a clear cooperative mission and defines collaboration as an interactive process for the mutual exchange of knowledge and joint learning.

“Co-publications with industry often have better scientific quality, measured by the number of citations, than publications only from HEI researchers. Collaboration also helps to bring new issues to research and education at all levels,” says Rolf Nilsson, analyst at Vinnova.

When the joint activities in the Vinnova-sponsored project are being planned, the parties agree on what to do and what goals they will have. This probably reduces the risk of conflicting goals along the way, he says.

Commissioned research is organised in very different ways from case to case, and the amount of collaboration varies. Sometimes it is almost like ordered research, where the HEI carries out all the work itself. In other cases, the external partners are involved in the work and they have their own personnel on the project. They actively participate in both the design of the project and the actual work.

“Of course, it’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of eating out of the other party’s hand. Just as in the case of free research, where the researcher’s integrity is crucial, the same thing applies to collaboration,” says Rolf Nilsson.

Purchased research studies

Fredrik Törn is not particularly worried about the links between business and academia being so deep that they threaten the freedom of research or public confidence in the research institution.

“The general public in Sweden has a high level of trust for academia, and you have a lot of independence as a researcher. There are generally few allegations that HEI researchers are in the pockets of private companies, even though there have been some cases abroad, he says. There was a case with Coca Cola where a research manager resigned in the autumn after the company had financed research that downplayed the significance of the drink in the development of obesity.

But more and more people are talking about the risk of bias, and the American nutrition professor Marion Nestle lists a number of purchased research studies behind different health trends in her blog Food Politics. Among other things, she shows the results of research which claims that chocolate lowers blood pressure, sponsored by the Hershey company, and that whey reduces the risk of coronary artery diseases, sponsored by Arla Foods.

“The more collaboration you have, the more situations develop with a risk of conflicts,” says Gert Helgesson.

Text: Eva Barkeman
Photo: SPL / IBL Bildbyrå

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