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Industrial association, scientific integrity, and public opinion

Collaboration between Universities and industry has always been encouraged in most countries, particularly in Scandinavia, and has indeed been practised for a very long time. Initially scientific integrity was considered of paramount importance and there was very little discussion on the relevance of the data or the possibility that the scientific data could be adjusted in favour of the interests of the industry. 

In the 1970s society underwent a great change.  Authority began to be questioned and, in the scientific world, research related to particular industries was scrutinized. Over the years a number of attempts by the industry to suppress inconvenient information or even disguise reports on health hazards were uncovered. Examples in the chemical industry and the asbestos industry are legion.  

In policy documents from the 1970s, the tobacco industry decided to question and rebut reports on adverse health effects of smoking and environmental tobacco smoke, by hiring external "experts" or developing research of their own. At the same time, however, basic, unbiased research on the toxic effects of tobacco smoke was conducted. 

People often ask why the industry wanted to know the truth about the effects on health. There are two obvious reasons and they are not unique to the tobacco industry. One is that it needed the knowledge to be able to defend itself from exaggerated or false claims. The other is that knowledge about a product and its characteristics can lead to a possible modification to that product, leading to reduction in harmful effects and thus commercial advantage.

In the Affaire Rylander, the collaboration with the tobacco industry goes back to the early 1960s when this was totally acceptable and indeed a number of top chest physicians and toxicologists in general were consulting with the industry. The situation changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when the public discovered that the industry had tried to play down or even deny the effects of tobacco smoke on health. Information which supported this was found in the documentation that the industry was forced to make public by placing it on the net. 

The basic strategy behind the press release by Rielle and Diethelm in 2001 was to carefully select pieces of information from this material that supported their case. There was no attempt whatsoever from their side to examine Rylander’s published work from a scientific point of view or to understand the structure of his work with the industry. Rielle rejected an early invitation from Geneva University to set up an enquiry before the press conference went ahead.

To condemn scientific work on the basis of guilt by association, without analysing the facts, is a serious threat to the freedom of science and undermines basic academic principles. Unfortunately such actions are increasing and affecting not only the tobacco industry but also others such as the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. There is also the risk that data may be suppressed and withheld from publication, because it describes conclusions on risks or absence of risks that do not satisfy public opinion. The rule of the Spanish Inquisition and the condemnation of Galileo, using support from the devil as an argument, may seem to be only of historical interest but the same things are happening to-day. There is also a danger that scientific truth might be manipulated to conform to the views of public opinion. 

The principle of publishing data freely and fully without the fear of constraint or influence must be kept. Only by adhering completely to the academic principles of freely publishing data without considering the source of funding can regressive and anti-intellectual consequences be avoided.