Issues of ‘Corporate Science’ at the TEDx Conference

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The recent TEDx conference held at Lancaster’s Dukes theatre offered up a range of engaging and thought provoking ideas. However, one key speaker, Dr Stuart Parkinson of the campaign group ‘Scientists for Global Responsibility’, offered up what could be regarded as one of the more contentious ideas of the night. His argument was that which aimed to highlight the problems of what he labelled ‘Corporate Science’; stating that he felt there was too much industry involvement to be found within the realm of scientific research. While his concerns over this matter are valid, do they illuminate all of the factors linked to the corporate funding of scientific research?

As has been said, Dr Parkinson’s concerns on this matter are valid ones. Before becoming Executive Director of his campaign group he worked as an engineer on military projects. It was here, he said, that he began to get “ethical qualms” regarding the nature of his career path, noting that there was an “awful lot of money to be made” from projects of this nature, despite the negative impact that they may take on either the environment, or on human beings. Not only was this noticed in the industry he was employed in, but Dr Parkinson also made note of “problems in the food industry, agricultural industry and the chemical industry”. Yet, increases of industry funding would lead to what he saw as “more favourable results” for the companies. It was these results that would be shared with the public and consumers. “Corporations involved in public information campaigns”, thereby downplaying the risks of a range of things such as smoking or climate change to benefit their own profits.

The solution to such problems is something that Dr Parkinson has labelled as a “science for society approach”. Key to the successful implementation of this approach is what he views as the “need for more researchers who are independent of corporate funding”. To gain results from scientific research that is unswayed by financial benefits in favour of research that offers unbiased answers to questions over the damage being dealt by corporate products. Such undertakings are already occurring, but, rather ironically, little headway can be made into these research methods due to a lack of funding; equal to “just 1%” of the funding implemented by larger parties according to Dr Parkinson.

This is where the first major flaw in Dr Parkinson’s idea can be seen. Yes, it is definitely a cause for concern that major corporations can wield their large finances to gain influence over the scientific community, thereby gaining results more likely to show themselves or their products in a more positive public light. But at least in this way businesses can provide scientists with the means of making real scientific developments and breakthroughs. Apple exists primarily as a corporation that seeks to make huge profits from the technology market, but few would deny that their funding has brought about some of the most significant technological breakthroughs of recent years. In this way another flaw in Dr Parkinson’s idea is brought to light. Corporations exist to make profit, but it is only because we as consumers maintain a demand for the products that they sell. Is it right to place blame squarely on the shoulders of corporations for industrial meddling into matters of science, when it is consumers both large and small that act as the impetus for this meddling in the first place? Perhaps it is they who need to take the first step, by recognising what it is they are buying into, that might lead into a world where the worlds of business and science can collide less and less.