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Good idea: Think big, not business

There is barely a product that does not bear the words "scientifically proven" in its advertising campaign, be it shampoo, cereal or moisturiser. The serious repercussions of this trend are explored in Science and the Corporate Agenda, a new report from Scientists for Global Responsibility.

“The trustworthiness of science and scientists is at stake," proclaims Stuart Parkinson, co-author of the report, which suggests that pressure on scientists to deliver commercial benefits compromises research. Universities are forced to behave more like businesses and, in the process, sacrifice independence.

The argument is simple. If research is funded by a company with a particular commercial interest, there is an obvious risk that only favourable results will be used. The report considers the implications of commercially influenced research in fields such as pharmaceuticals, defence, biotechnology, oil and gas.

It is a frightening picture. A case study of the oil and gas sector illustrates how the influence of the industry "can lead to a focus on fossil-fuel-based technologies or controversial biofuels" within the research. And if it is funded by big corporations, research agendas are inevitably distorted, as short-term commercial interests take precedence over projects with social or environmental goals.

Science and the Corporate Agenda argues that the formation this year of Peter Mandelson's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills demonstrates the ever-closer convergence of universities and business, as they are united under one umbrella. It recommends that the new department be broken up, giving public-interest science and universities a higher position within the government hierarchy.

This makes sense, but risks being merely cosmetic - yet another rebranding exercise - unless it is accompanied by practical measures to ensure the independence of scientific research. It is worth noting that all the chairs of the five research councils funding science are, or were, corporate executives; and to be eligible for funding, scientists must outline the economic benefits of their project.

In response, the report calls for the establishment of an independent body to give out a significant proportion of funding, prioritising projects with a wide public interest. It also recommends that universities adopt ethical standards for the companies they work with, ruling out the worst offenders on social or environmental issues.

Preserving the integrity of scientific research can only be a good thing. Would Edison have invented the light bulb if his efforts were funded and monitored by a candle-making conglomerate? Entwining the quest for knowledge with the interests of big business means we risk curtailing any progress that does not yield a profit.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London