Research “firewalls” – The King is Naked!

There is talk of “firewalls” between the industry funding research and the scientists executing this research. Are these firewalls providing a real independence of scientists from the funding industry or are they just for the sake of “keeping up appearances”? In practice, how reliable is the system of “firewalls”?

In my opinion, the currently used system of “firewalls” does not work. Industry sponsors and sponsored scientists are intelligent people. Industry sponsors do not need to say “things” aloud and scientists understand “things” that are not said. In the situation of research data being very ambivalent, the interpretation of the meaning of the results is crucial and should not be in any way influenced by “things” not said…

The King is Naked!

Two examples of “firewalls” are Vinnova from Sweden and Tekes from Finland. The first one provides “firewall” for the ongoing epidemiology project COSMOS. The second one provided “firewall” for the series of research projects conducted in Finland, including projects that funded research of my group at STUK.

On the Cosmos project website at the Karolinska Institute the following statement is displayed:

“…Vinnova administers a grant from Telenor, TeliaSonera and Sony Ericsson, and acts as a firewall according to a contract that guarantees the independence and autonomy of the research…”

This statement is to assure us that the science is independent of the industry because:

  • the industry provided research funding, but
  • funding is administered by Vinnova, meaning that
  • researchers receive funds from Vinnova and not directly from the industry

Vinnova is supposed to be the “firewall” securing the independence of the research. However,

  • the industry knows whom they are funding
  • the scientists know who is funding them
  • “firewall” keeper, Vinnova, is profiting from providing “firewall” and administering the industry’s money for the scientists

This situation resembles the proverbial ‘public secret’ – everyone knows but no one publicly admits to know…

In Finland, Tekes provides “firewall” for the research projects on cell phones. These projects were funded in large part by the taxpayers’ money (70-75%). However, there was also an industry input of 25-30% of money. In return for this financial support, as in all Tekes projects by default, industry representatives were included in the board supervising research projects. Industry scientists on the board participated in all discussions of planning what and how will be studied. The researchers from the industry were always very active in the discussions and when they did not like some idea they showed it clearly. Interestingly, and this is a sarcasm, only the projects that met “approval” of the industry scientists were later funded by Tekes. It was clear that the “firewall” keeper, Tekes, followed closely industry’s advice what research is worthwhile and what is not. Once projects were approved and funded industry scientists participated in discussions about the results and their opinions might have some influence on the scientists conclusions. There was definitely no attempts of industry to control what was published as the outcome of the projects. However, the close involvement of the industry scientists in planning and analyzing execution of the projects could, in spite of “firewall”, have an impact on what and how was studied. Inconvenient projects were not funded…

Institutions that are used as “firewalls” are living off the industry funding for the “firewall”. It is not certain that they will endanger their own livelihood by passing funding to “undesirable” projects.

Industry that sponsors research projects often requires, as a part of the deal, to know on what projects their money will be used.This way the industry justifies the participation of the industry scientists in planning phase of the research projects – they do not want their money to be wasted for unnecessary research. There is some logic in this kind of thinking but there is also a danger. Projects that for some reasons industry considers as undesirable, from the industry point of view, will not get funded. This does not automatically mean that these “undesired” projects are wrong…

Something should be done to avoid this situation of false “firewalls”. There is one option to do so. Thus far, whenever new research projects needs to be executed, scientists ask industry to provide funding. Scientists depend on the industry’s interest and good will. This should not be so for the projects that examine the safety of products that industry is profiting from.

The solution is a RESEARCH TAX imposed on the industry and e.g. dependent on the size of the profits. The collected funds should be supervised by some scientific body that would give out research grants to the scientists. This would prevent the current situation where scientists have always to go “hat in hand” to industry and ask for research money.

Of course, such RESEARCH TAX will be later included in costs paid by the consumers. But this is nothing new. Certainly the same happens with the current sponsoring of the research – costs of research are included in consumer prices.

Having RESEARCH TAX would made the current “keeping appearances of firewalls” obsolete. System would be healthier without pretending something that does not exist.

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Updated with a link on 4.3.2014 – related story in Swedish Ny teknik about Vinnova and Cosmos

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