2 min read

A people set apart

There’s a conference coming up at Deakin University in Melbourne, on energy drinks. The unusual aspect of the conference is that no-one who has received industry funding is welcome. Obviously the energy drink industry aren’t happy about this.  I couldn’t give a fsck about their hurt feelings, but I hope this sort of policy doesn’t spread.

Now, I’m not completely naïve about the sorts of things some industry groups will do when there’s a lot of money at stake. People in New Zealand will have heard the allegations in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics about smear campaigns against Doug Sellman and Mike Joy, but I knew about the problem long before that. I have friends and colleagues from Seattle who were the target of pharmaceutical industry dirty tricks over a paper on the safety of some (then new and expensive) blood pressure drugs. At a less serious but more personal scale, I’ve heard reports of what some sales personnel for Mathsoft used to say about R and its developers.  

Still, I hope this sort of exclusionary policy doesn’t spread.  It’s fine to organise a workshop by invitation, for people who agree with you on some issue to work on the next step. I’ve been part of those myself. It’s acceptable to exclude non-researchers from research meetings, and I’m entirely in favour of throwing out individuals who persist in being disruptive, but it’s a big step to say that anyone who has received research funding from the energy drink industry is ipso facto a fraud.

The problem is particularly bad in research areas where the signal to noise ratio is very low, so that it’s easy to miss important problems with your results. I rather like the approach for air pollution epidemiology represented by the Health Effects Institute. It was a joint venture by the EPA and the polluting industries to come up with research that addressed the public policy issues and that people could believe, including the most useful peer-review processes I’ve encountered. It was necessary: although the polluters turned out to be wrong on all the substantive issues, they were right about the quality of some of the research.  I met some first-class scientists in air pollution research (notably, the late Sally Liu), but there were also people who knew what the answer should be and wanted to get it.

I’ve never received or sought industry research funding, and have done a very limited amount of consulting for them (statistical software courses). I’d be allowed into meetings like this one, but I’d be reluctant to go.