I am going to do a presentation about academic ethics for my class, and one of the themes are conflict of interest. As of now I have found only generic examples, such as research done with corporate funding, but never concrete examples. In addition, most concrete examples, I presume, are dull and minor. So are there any high profile case I can refer to as demonstration?
The manipulation of research and press coverage by the tobacco industry on the health effects of smoking would make an excellent case study (see e.g. Bero, 2005), not least as many leaked internal documents have come to light over the years which leave no doubt as to this having been a deliberate policy.
One infamous internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, typed up in the summer of 1969, sets out the thinking very clearly: “Doubt is our product.” Why? Because doubt “is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
-- The problem with facts, Tim Harford
Just one example would be the attempt to refute an influential Japanese study on the effects of passive smoking. The actual employees of the industry were left off the study to confer some distance ("ghost authors")
The tobacco industry generated a study, the “Japanese spousal study,” in an attempt to refute the findings of a 1981 cohort study showing an association between secondhand exposure to tobacco smoke and lung cancer
The parties involved in conducting the study included a tobacco industry scientist, a tobacco industry consultant, an industry law firm, and two Japanese investigators. The consultant was the sole author of the final publication
-- Hong and Bero (2002)
Interestingly, the picture is not completely negative, as Big Tobacco's policy of "distraction research" (funding unrelated research for good PR) led to some important high profile discoveries and Nobel Prizes.
Prusiner is a neurologist. In 1972, he was a young researcher who’d just encountered a patient suffering from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It was a dreadful degenerative condition then thought to be caused by a slow-acting virus. After many years of study, Prusiner concluded that the disease was caused instead, unprecedentedly, by a kind of rogue protein. The idea seemed absurd to most experts at the time, and Prusiner’s career began to founder. Promotions and research grants dried up. But Prusiner received a source of private-sector funding that enabled him to continue his work. He was eventually vindicated in the most spectacular way possible: with a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1997. In his autobiographical essay on the Nobel Prize website, Prusiner thanked his private-sector benefactors for their “crucial” support: RJ Reynolds, maker of Camel cigarettes.
-- The problem with facts, Tim Harford
Bero L. A. (2005) Tobacco industry manipulation of research. Public Health Reports. 120(2):200-208.
Hong, M.-K., & Bero, L. A. (2002). How the tobacco industry responded to an influential study of the health effects of secondhand smoke. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 325(7377), 1413–1416.
A major example of this, which came into recent prominence, is the sugar industry paying scientists to downplay the health issues associated with sugar consumption.
From the New York Times article:
"The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat."
You can also read the original paper which this article is based on here:
A recent example in France :
Michel Aubier, a french scientist, was paid more than 300000 euros to wrongly testify under oath before french senate about risks related to pollution
(I am french, so sorry for any typos).