Tue, Apr 23, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Avoiding conflicts of interest in research

By Lin Yi-ping 林宜平

The call for “a lab of our own” has emerged in the environmental movement in recent years. Take, for instance, the environmental breast cancer movement launched by the Silent Spring Institute and other environmental groups in the US in response to the fact that breast cancer research was either funded by the government or by the cosmetics industry, such as the well-known Pink Ribbon.

Most mainstream epidemiological research places too much emphasis on individual lifestyles, while ignoring the impact of environmental toxins.

The environmental breast cancer movement relies on funding from donations, rather than government or industry, and supports research on environmental toxicity as it builds its own laboratories.

The most well-known laboratory supported by small donations is located in an Italian castle — the Ramazzini Institute. Founded in 1970, the toxicology lab is the world’s second-largest animal lab, after the US National Toxicology Program.

Because it has a sufficient budget to support long-term research, the lab does not have to act as both a player and a referee in its research efforts, and can thus avoid conflicts of interest.

Both academia and governments attach great importance to its research, and it is also well-regarded by the public.

However, the controversy over environmental and occupational health hazards often requires — apart from evidence provided by toxicological research — evidence provided by epidemiological research results, as well as health risk assessments.

Establishing a toxicology laboratory that supports the environmental movement requires purchasing equipment, breeding guinea pigs and recruiting scientists, which requires money. However, setting up an environmental and occupational epidemiology lab or research office also involves another set of difficulties.

For epidemiological research and health-risk assessments, budget and space requirements are not too high. The real problems lie in the difficulty of obtaining research data.

Research on environmental and occupational health hazards are often closely related to significant business interests.

Whether it involves staff information, data on chemical substances used during the production process or waste emissions data, the data stored at government agencies are usually incomplete.

Most companies refuse to provide such information, claiming that it has been destroyed, that the law does not require them to provide such information or that the information constitutes a commercial secret.

If Taiwan’s environmental movement wants to build its own laboratory, it not only needs to raise funds and find a proper site, it also needs to seek support from the relevant government agencies. Only by creating laws requiring that data be stored and made public will Taiwan be able to remove opaqueness and uncertainty and embrace the arrival of spring.

Lin Yi-ping is an associate professor at National Yang-Ming University’s Institute of Science, Technology and Society.

Translated by Eddy Chang

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