ANY attempt, real or perceived, to mask industry involvement in related scientific research is sure to raise suspicion about the resulting conclusions. That's how important absolute integrity is to any research and why there was such an uproar recently over a major medical study by scientists at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
Only after Cornell researchers had published the results of an extensive study suggesting that routine lung scans might save smokers from the most lethal cancer, did the New England Journal, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and dozens of groups including the American Cancer Society, find out that "Big Tobacco" had co-funded the work.
Many of the prominent anti-smoking crusaders, who had also given money to the Cornell team to study the benefits of lung scans were stunned when the New York Times disclosed the hidden tobacco cash behind the research. The foundation Cornell had set up to sponsor the study received $3.6 million from a parent company of cigarette maker Liggett Group Inc.
Liggett announced the donation to Cornell in a 2000 press release, but the funding source wasn't clearly revealed to the journals. Cornell denied any effort to shield the money under cover of its foundation, insisting that a public announcement had been made acknowledging the contribution from the tobacco company.
The company also hastened to add that it "had no control or influence over the research," but that's not the point. The perception that the research is tainted remains, damaging the trust that scientists must maintain with the medical community. As Dr. John Niederhuber of the National Cancer Institute put it, "any breach of that trust is not simply disappointing but, I believe, unacceptable."
Some like Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, believe any findings from a study tainted by concealed industry ties will be much less credible than if such connections were transparent. Others, like the cancer society's chief medical officer, Dr. Otis Brawley, who said the society would not have contributed to the study if it knew of the tobacco link, thinks the study may still have merit.
It is regrettable that any doubt has been introduced in a study with potentially huge implications for lung cancer patients. But that's what happens to even highly significant research that fails to stay above reproach.