The Science for Profit Model—How and why corporations influence science and the use of science in policy and practice 

Why has scientism rather than real genuine science crept into every aspect of our industries and lives? Read the full article here The Science for Profit Model—How and why corporations influence science and the use of science in policy and practice.
This paper is the first to attempt to fully categorise corporate influence on both science and the use of science in policy and practice. It shows that corporate influence on science goes far beyond a handful of industry actors working nefariously to skew isolated evidence bases. Instead, it involves industries permeating and moulding scientific, academic, and policymaking systems to ensure such systems work in their interest. We identified 5 macro, 19 meso, and 64 micro strategies through which this influence is enacted (the Science for Profit Typology—Table 1), finding that these strategies are used consistently and repeatedly by diverse corporations across eight industry sectors–alcohol, chemicals and manufacturing, extractive, food and drink, fossil fuels, gambling, pharmaceuticals and medical technologies, and tobacco. All eight industries were seen to use either four or all five of the macro strategies, and between 10 and 19 of the 19 meso-level strategies (Table 2). .
Our analysis also demonstrated these industries’ attempts to influence science were undertaken for similar reasons. We developed a model of corporate influence on science and the use of science in policy and practice (the Science for Profit Model–Fig 2) to illustrate the mechanisms through which this influence is mediated, identifying four stages of influence, which we name “strategies”, “effects on science”, “proximal outcomes” and “distal outcomes”.
Fig 2. The Science for Profit Model—Corporate influence on science and the use of science in policy and practice—Strategies, effects, and outcomes.

The model shows that the corporate macro, meso and micro strategies identified work collectively to achieve the following effects on science–to maximise the volume, credibility, reach, and use of industry-favourable science, and to minimise those same aspects of industry-unfavourable science. In this way, corporations reshape and skew whole evidence bases in their interests (such that when, for example, researchers, policymakers and practitioners look to the literature for answers to problems they may, often unknowingly, find evidence bases flooded with research tailored for industry’s benefit), control who evidence does and does not reach (with evidence on industry harms sometimes not seeing the light of day while a plethora of trusted voices are used to ensure industry-funded misinformation reaches key audiences), and ultimately influence how evidence gets used.

These complex and multifaceted interactions with science lead to three proximal outcomes: they (i) create doubt about the potential harms of industry products and/or practices and about policies that might reduce product sales or profitability; (ii) promote industry-favoured policy responses and industry products as solutions to complex problems; and (iii) legitimise the role of corporations as stakeholders in science and, through this, society. These proximal outcomes in turn serve to create three distal outcomes–to weaken policy, prevent litigation, and maximise consumption and use of industry products and practices, ultimately maximising corporate profitability.

Perhaps most worrying was not just the scale and consistency of this corporate influence but that it extends substantially beyond influencing the production, credibility, and reach of science to shaping how science is used in policy and practice with potentially far-reaching societal impacts. For instance, we found that corporations have worked to promote an over simplistic risk-based, rather than precautionary-based approach to regulation, which sets a high evidential bar and enables industry to dismantle whole evidence bases paper by paper [22348]. Industry has misleadingly referred to this as a ‘science-based’ approach despite the fact that it is specifically intended to make it harder for policymakers to both use whole evidence bases in what is a genuinely scientific approach, and to regulate corporate products [49]. To date, corporations have sought to implement such systems via both regulatory reforms and trade and investment treaties [4348], policy fora where public health and environmental interest groups may not routinely be present. Similarly, industries have worked to embed systems which, through the use of stakeholder consultations and impact assessments requiring a cost benefit approach, increase reliance on and provide a conduit for industry-favourable science [5052]. Evidence from the EU shows that this was specifically intended to make it harder to pass policies that would protect human and planetary health and has gone on to be used in this way [21435154]. Worryingly, such systems are widespread [5862] and may be having adverse impacts on policymaking in many jurisdictions.

Strengths and weaknesses

A key strength of our approach is that it creates an evidence-based, pan-industry typology and model. The typology provides an accessible way of understanding the diverse corporate strategies used and the intentions behind them, while the model outlines, simply, the ways in which these strategies lead to outcomes.

The particular strengths of our analysis over existing attempts to synthesise the evidence in this area are three-fold. First, it identifies industry sectors inductively, leading to the inclusion of several sectors that thus far had either been excluded from (the gambling industry) [272863] or relatively neglected in (the alcohol [22763], extractive [2729], food and drink [22763] and fossil fuels [282963] industries) this work. Second, it extends previous syntheses that focused on corporate influence on science by also examining the ways in which corporations have attempted to influence the use of science in policymaking. Thus, much of Macro Strategy D had not been outlined in previous syntheses. The sub-section of literature on which this strategy is based identifies a little recognised route of corporate influence [21], yet one which is vital to understand given its potential far reaching impacts. Third, we have provided significant detail on the industry strategies identified. Similar to previous work on corporate political activity that synthesised large volumes of evidence into evidence-based typologies [1012], we identified and categorised corporate strategies not only broadly (the macro and meso strategies) but also in detail (micro strategies). This structured and hierarchical approach can aid in identifying key points in the system where change may be needed.

Where our data did not identify a specific industry’s use of a strategy, this should not be interpreted as evidence that industry does not use that strategy. This is particularly the case for strategies that are more covert and are therefore less likely to be documented. Examples include meso strategies 2 (covertly undertake or prevent “risky” industry research) and 11 (use legal means to protect industry evidence from being discovered or accessed); both evidenced in four of the eight industries. Further, analysis of corporate documents released following litigation against some industries has enabled the identification of more diverse strategies in these industries (the tobacco industry was found to use all 19 meso-strategies, the chemicals and manufacturing industry 18, and the pharmaceutical industry 16), when compared to industries where lawsuits have not provided such documents and where evidence is only now beginning to emerge (for example the gambling and extractive industries were found to use 10 and 12 of the 19, respectively).

We identified small amounts of data on other sectors including the banking [27] and tanning [64] industries but there was insufficient detail to include these in our analysis. There was also evidence that the tobacco industry planned to mobilise other industries such as the fishing and waterworks industries as part of their attempts to influence the use of science in policymaking [365]. See S2 Appendix for information on sectors excluded due to lack of data. Finally, while there is evidence that the pharmaceutical, tobacco, fossil fuels, and chemicals and manufacturing industries have worked to influence the use of science in tort litigation through the Daubert Ruling in the United States [240], the use of science in courts was beyond the remit of our study.

Implications for policy and practice

The Science for Profit Typology can be used as an analytic framework for further research on corporate scientific activity. For example, it could be used to ascertain whether and how industry strategies change over time and place, and in response to policy interventions (that is, do industries diversify their scientific strategies when their activity is restricted in some areas), or to examine the strategies used by additional industries, extending the typology where appropriate. This has been done in a similar fashion with the initial evidence-based typologies of corporate policy influence strategies [1012], which have then been used to investigate the corporate political activity of other industries [96668].

Our typology and the strategies therein intersect closely with the policy influence strategies identified in these corporate political activity (CPA) frameworks, in large part because the scientific strategies we identify are necessary building blocks in corporate influence. For instance, a key part of CPA, “information management” [11] identifies the production and use of misleading evidence as a key policy influence strategy. Our typology provides greater detail of the mechanisms through which this occurs. Another feature of CPA, “reputation management” [11] is also further elucidated in our typology in relation to science. Strategy 18 (manufacturing a picture of industry credibility) identifies how industries use interactions with science and academia to build their credibility, since this strategy functions not only to underpin and enable Macro Strategies A-D, but also to afford corporations greater credibility generally.

In short, influence on science does not occur in a vacuum; rather it is key part of the system through which corporate influence and power more generally are mediated. Amalgamating our typology with other models, overviews and conceptualisations of CPA and the commercial determinants of health (CDoH) [1011162069] could therefore provide a more holistic overview of how interactions with science serve corporate interests well beyond scientific and academic environments. This also indicates that addressing corporate influence on science is key to addressing CPA and CDoH more broadly.

Our typology and model can also inform future work in the field of agnotology [6]. Whilst not all agnogenesis (purposefully created ignorance) is created by corporations, or achieved through interactions with science, much is. As such, our work can further elucidate the relationship between corporate science-based strategies and the creation of agnogenesis.

Identifying solutions to corporate influence on science

The key use of our work, however, is that the identification of industry strategies can be used to identify solutions. Our finding that scientific influence is widespread and enacted in similar ways and for similar reasons across diverse industries, indicates that collective solutions are both necessary and feasible.

The model and typology effectively identify two broad routes to achieve such solutions. The first to address the strategies identified one by one; the second to address the underlying driver–corporate funding of science. To date, many policies and practices have been proposed, developed, and utilised that mitigate the effects of the corporate strategies we identify. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to detail all of these, we outline some important ways to address each of the five macro strategies.

Attempts to tackle bias in the conduct and publication of science (Macro Strategy A) involve research integrity tools, used to assess risk of bias and improve reporting in science [7071]; mandatory registration of clinical trials [72]; and policies mandating reductions in author conflicts of interest [73] and prohibiting the publication of industry-funded science [74]. However, many such scientific protections can and have been disregarded, manipulated, and circumvented by corporate interests, and are therefore insufficient. For instance, it is often impossible to detect the influence that a corporate funder may have had on the design and execution of science [2]; journal policies that preclude the publication of industry-funded science can be circumvented through non-disclosure [63]; and corporations find alternative mechanisms for publication of their research, including through the creation of industry-funded journals and through publication of non-peer-reviewed proceedings from industry-funded symposia [127].

Methods that have been suggested to mitigate corporate influence on the interpretation and reach of science (Macro Strategies B and C) include discontinuing industry-sponsored medical education [75], training consumers of science (including the public, journalists and health professionals) in evidence appraisal skills [7678], and preventing industry relationships with civil society organisations [79].

Addressing industry efforts to shape the use of science in policy decision-making (Macro Strategy D) is complex. While the aim should be to prevent the further spread of such industry-friendly policymaking environments, a first step is to raise awareness among the public and policymakers of these strategies and how industry has used them to date, including to undermine policy action on endocrine-disrupting chemicals [40], carcinogenic solvents [2], tobacco [5354], and climate change [2].

Given its underpinning role, addressing industry attempts to manufacture trust in itself and its science (Macro strategy E), will be key. That industry uses its involvement in research to enable it to be seen as socially conscious and as a necessary partner in the search for solutions, often to problems it has created, is not yet typically understood as a key facet of “reputation management” [11]. As with many of the strategies identified, training in corporate influence on science as a key element of research training is an essential first step. Efforts to tackle concealment of industry involvement in science (that is, the second part of Macro strategy E) such as an author-centric database of researchers’ financial interests [8081] should be developed and implemented. However, since research has shown that declarations of conflicts of interest can have unanticipated impacts [82]; transparency measures are not a panacea.

Ultimately, however, addressing the underlying driver of much of this corporate influence on science is best achieved via structural changes to the way science is funded. A model for how corporate monies can be used to fund independent science has been elaborated for tobacco–essentially by mandating payments from industry which are then independently administered [83]. Such systems have been implemented in Italy, California, and Thailand, where levies on the pharmaceutical, tobacco, and alcohol industries have been used to fund independent research on their products [758485]. Such an approach would help address all the other strategies identified and therefore likely represents the most effective and sustainable solution.

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