Industry Funded Research
This granting of trust may seem at odds with our core beliefs, but it really isn’t. That’s because in our fast-moving, highly interdependent society we place a great deal of faith in our institutions. For example, we have a reasonable certainty that the products we buy will perform as intended, just as we expect our government to help maintain our streets, schools and communities. Should any of these institutions fail to meet our expectations, then our placement of trust will be quickly withdrawn.
That’s why I’m concerned when I read about the loss of the public’s trust in many of our institutions, which appears to be happening everywhere. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer confirmed that globally trust is in crisis. In fact, two-thirds of countries represented had trust levels which fell below 50 percent. While this spans most segments of society (confidence in government, media, business and NGOs all fell), that is little comfort to us in agriculture. Our industry depends on scientific research to enable the transformative technologies needed for our future food security. If the public does not trust our science, then this security could be in jeopardy.
is the Global Head of Research and Development for Crop Science, a Division of Bayer.
At one time, scientific research was largely supported through private patronage. Galileo’s work was funded by wealthy individuals (including the Pope), but over time governments became more involved in advancing research. In the 19th century, Darwin’s voyage was funded by the British government for the purpose of testing clocks and drawing maps for the navy. Ironically, the research for which Darwin is most famous was paid separately from his family’s private assets. Today, it is quite common to see studies funded by a mix of grants from various government agencies, institutions and foundations.
Despite government’s crucial role, a report entitled The Future Postponed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology raised concerns about how declining investment in basic research, particularly public investment in plant sciences, threatens agriculture’s ability to innovate. Fortunately, this public shortfall is being supplemented by the private sector, where much of today’s cutting-edge research in agriculture is being conducted in company facilities across the globe.
But here we come back to the question of trust. Are industry-funded studies as trustworthy and credible as publically-funded research? My experience as a scientist has taught me that the answer is an unqualified “yes,” but I know there are those who will disagree. Unfortunately, when it comes to public perception, discussions on this topic can be long on emotion and short on the facts.
It doesn’t help that some scientists who accept industry funding are perceived as “biased” and have been criticized or even threatened for doing so. Such attitudes create a chilling effect and hinder our ability to address the challenges we face in agriculture, which are demanding more public-private cooperation, not less. At this year’s annual AgVocacy Forum, I had the opportunity to meet with a diverse group of stakeholders – farmers, researchers, suppliers, and even a chef – to discuss a topic that is important to all of us: food. While we may not be of one mind in how we tackle such issues, we are in full agreement that we can do more to bring healthy food to more people by working together. For our part, we need to tell more about our research to help those understand what it involves.
All too often, university experts who collaborate with private industry are falsely accused of compromising their scientific integrity. This is especially true when it comes to genetically engineered crops and other highly-technical fields of research. And yet private-public partnerships have blossomed precisely because they know that no single entity has all the answers. While a certain amount of skepticism in corporations is understandable, it is unwise to categorically reject all industry-funded research as inherently biased. Dubious accusations of bias may make for great headlines, but they discourage free-flowing scientific exchange and undermine the great challenges we face in agriculture.
Ultimately, what makes a study trustworthy is not its source of funding, but the scientific integrity on which it is based. In our regulated industry, crop protection products must conform to a rigorous set of guidelines, known as Good Laboratory Practices (GLP), which ensures that our studies are ethically conducted, meticulously recorded and can be reliably reproduced by others using similar testing methods. Unless specifically exempted by the regulating authority, tests involving health and environmental safety must be performed under GLP guidelines in order for a product to gain regulatory approval. While they are designed to prevent fraud or data falsification, GLP studies also serve to reassure the public about the integrity of industry research.
Some may question why we need industry funding for research at all? They argue that concerns of bias would be removed by having such research conducted by independent third parties. While that may seem logical, it is important to note that most research involving food products is funded privately. R&D-based industries are laser-focused on meeting their customers’ needs, and these priorities are not likely to match those of a general public that is far removed from the farm. Without industry-funded research, vital new discoveries in agriculture would surely decline.
I understand why public confidence in scientific research is so low. One need only scan the media coverage of science-related issues (Coffee is bad! No it’s good!) to know that the incremental nature of research can seem contradictory and confusing. And let’s face it: scientists themselves don’t always agree on the same scientific evidence. Nonetheless, consumers have every right to expect that the products used on crops will not pose a threat to their health or the environment.
While it may be impossible to drive every bit of bias out of any research (public or private), there are safeguards in place to ensure that ag-related studies are appropriately monitored and scrutinized. Without industry research, innovations in agriculture to address our future food needs would be greatly diminished. As scientists, our challenge is to effectively engage and communicate on these issues in ways that serve both the public understanding and the needs of our farmer customers.
Believe me, you can trust me on this!