Briefing Paper No. 117

Scientific Misconduct: The Manipulation of Evidence for Political Advocacy in Health Care and Climate Policy

By George Avery
February 8, 2010

Science is increasingly being manipulated by those who try to use it to justify political choices based on their ethical preferences and who are willing to suppress evidence of conflict between those preferences and the underlying reality. This problem is clearly seen in two policy domains, health care and climate policy.

In the area of climate policy, recent revelations of e-mails from the government-sponsored Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia reveal a pattern of data suppression, manipulation of results, and efforts to intimidate journal editors to suppress contradictory studies that indicate that scientific misconduct has been used intentionally to manipulate a social consensus to support the researchers’ advocacy of addressing a problem that may or may not exist.

In health care policy, critics have long worried about the inordinate influence of pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers on research to show the safety and viability of new products. Recent information, however, shows that government agencies may cause more problems in this area — a worrisome development considering that health care legislation recently passed by the United States Senate would allow federal agencies to punish organizations whose researchers publish results that conflict with what the agency feels is appropriate.

That bill allows the withholding of funding to an institution where a researcher publishes findings not “within the bounds of and entirely consistent with the evidence,” a vague authorization that creates a tremendous tool that can be used to ensure self-censorship and conformity with bureaucratic preferences. As AcademyHealth notes, “Such language to restrict scientific freedom is unprecedented and likely unconstitutional.”

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George Avery, PhD, MPA, is an assistant professor of public health in the Department of Health and Kinesiology and the Regenstrief Center for Health Care Engineering at Purdue University.