Tuesday, 24 October 2017

What have political interference in research & Harvey Weinstein got in common (updated)

I don't suppose anyone will have trouble guessing the answer: neither the existence of sex pests in show business (for heavens sake) nor the existence of political considerations in academic work are anything new.

In the case of abuse in show business, what has changed is the awareness of it as a problem that should not be tolerated. This is a big step forward. Universities, it also turns out, are far from innoocent in this respect. Some senior academics have this weird mixture of power and charisma based on their knowledge and communication skill. In medicine, this "transference" problem is so well known that there are severe sanctions for taking sexual advantage of patients. Even if it might seem like something consensual, the power imbalance makes it abusive. In academe, however, sleeping with your  students seems to be more accepted. At least there is no strict code of ethics, or wasnt the last time I looked. A BSA working group on this issue, 20 or so years ago now, decided not to develop such a code, to the dismay of someone I know with training in medicine who was a member of the working group. This is not to say we thought a lecturer should never develop an emotional relationship with a student, only that it must no take place at the same time as the power relationship of teacher-student. As another friend once said of an academic we both knew "Lets face it dear, if he was the window cleaner you wouldn't look twice".

In the case of academic work, it is to be greatly welcomed that we now have things like "Retraction Watch" working to expose misconduct. And that people are speaking up more about harassment of all kinds. I think this is a similar develoment. It comes at a time when the incentives for misconduct are massively inceasing, but I have remarked on Twitter that it is nothing completely new. So here are some stories about the way things have been over the last 30 years of my career.

In the 1980s there was a lively debate on whether or not unemployment (during the Thatcher recession) was harmful to health. Could it be that sicker or less "fit" people were more likely to become and remain unemployed? Any apparent association between the two wold then be "confounded" by pre-existing poor health. A series of 3 studies seemed to show that this was not true, that unemployment itself was harmful.  There were not many holds barred in this competition between what you might say were more versus less politically sophisticated groups and individuals. I was told during this time that one way an academic could get research money was to say "Dear Minister, we can prove that unemployment does not cause ill health or mortality". Other people admitted to having taken up the topic because it made it easier to get published. The topic was a bandwagon. There is more detail on this story in my book "Authorities and Partisans". But the denoument was remarkable: an MRC programme grant that had produced some of these findings was cut from 5 years to 2. That had never happened before and I don't think it ever happened again. This was in 1987.

Most people may not remember that Thatcher commissioned a review of the (then ) Social Science Research Council. The result was a change in title of the UKs major social science funding body to "Economic and Social Research Council" (the ESRC of today). In this way the title of the funding did not contain the word "Science". Political interference? Naaahhh.

Some colleagues set out to try & make me understand that a lot of interference in research was not "Political", it was small-p stuff that was done by  those who sat on powerful funding bodies. There were funding bodies, and indeed, journals, that one just did not bother with during the incumbency of certain people on their governing board or editoria committees, because you knew it would be a waste of time. A Scottish Office civil servant admitted duriing a seminar I attended that during the Thatcher years there were some eminent Profs who just would never be granted funding from government sources. But other eminent figures would vote down research projects or papers because their own results might be threatened, which had nothing to do with Politics.

When I applied for money to do my own first project on unemployment & health, I had come to a more subtle understanding of this kind of thing. I included a good-ish chunk of text about how, now that we had longitudinal data, we could investigate more closely the selection processes that might produce the appearance of poor health among the unemployed (sicker people being "selected" for unemployment). We knew the health status of participants in these studies from birth, and we knew their hisotires of employment and unemployment. But silly me! I had not anicipated that there would be assessors of the proposal who were very much outside this ideological camp. One fair minded senior colleague, who was asked to be a referee on the proposal, was a little shocked at my approach (he had supervised my PhD, I was mortified). But being fair minded, he did not turn it down. This was around 1993. We got all our papers published, which began to show that the association between unemployment and health needs to be seen not as "either selection or causation" but rather that many unemployed people had had previously more adverse life courses, which could increase their propensity to both illness and unemployment. This work met with very little response, either hostile or friendly. At that time (mid 1990s) Cox regression with time  varying co-ordinates was a bit heavy going for the average reader . More important perhaps was that there was a change of government in 1997. When, during the mid 2000s, I went to present some of the results at the Social Exclusion Unit I was asked why all our models adjusted for the height of the parents. I explained this was the only way we had to control for any genetic influences on who became unemployed. The politicans present, to their everlasting credit, were absolutely horrifed at the notion anyone would think unemployment was genetic. I do wonder if members of the present government would have the same reaction.

Which brings me to the last story I have energy to talk about today. I am privileged to be involved in a large EU funded project on health inequality during the life course . One of the "work packages" concerns policy implications and policy impact. So the project leader, a distinguished public health academic, who also knows a lot about "omics" (genomics, proteoics etc), invited a participant from a very well known health policy institute to help the project with policy impact. At our last meeting our policy expert was critical of the little genetic work that had yet been done (it will be, it just takes awhile) and of the strong social justice theme in the project overall. "All the policy makers want to hear is about genetic influences" we were told. This story illustrates the importance that has to be given to things like a totally oversimplified view of genetics now in the age of Impact. Admittedly 20 years ago we had to show we had "taken account " of genetic influences in order to get past referees, but our Unemployment & Health project was not assessed on Impact .It got the highest possible grade in the assessment of its Final Report to the ESRC, which it would not today because we were pretty conservative in drawing media attention to it. And what will happen to the EU projects Impact when it does publish results of proper genetic research on health inequality, which will show miniscule influences? We shall see.

Oh, yes, cant resist one last tale. Around 1997, someone I had worked with for years was a speaker at a workshop in Manchester on Health Inequality, to talk about the genetics of health inequality. I had been invited to this but didn't feel like going to Manchester (tilting trains make me sick). So I phoned my long term colleague to ask if he would like me to turn up & give some moral support. "You misunderstand" he responded "I am talking in favour of a genetic effect". I was stunned. "If I get an OR of 1.4 for some social determinant" he explained" I only get that paper in JECH. If I get that same result for a gene, I get it in Nature". Go figure.

1 comment:

  1. I suppose genes will always get headlines. But in what context we are doing research? Finding and validating causal mechanisms? My question is could we apply this school of thoughts to everything? If so who to say which one is important over the other?