Rather than questioning science, people might be questioning its lack of transparency.

Anti-science (Part 2): Are they questioning science or its transparency?

As the debate around the perceived rise of ‘anti-science’ continues, we delve deeper into the discussion. In our previous part, we examined Dr. Peter J. Hotez’s campaign against what he calls the “deadly rise of anti-science.” We emphasized the importance of presenting evidence to back up such assertions. In this part, we embark on a journey to uncover the underlying causes of scientific distrust. But most are not questioning science. Science doesn’t seem to be the enemy of the people. Instead, concerns trace back to issues within science, particularly within specific healthcare sectors.

This is a complex case as Hotez doesn’t explicitly identify the specific areas of science that face said criticism or questioning. Instead, he portrays science as some uniform multicellular organism with cells sharing the same ideologies and values, agreeing on everything. In his campaign, you feel a spirit of resistance, in which Hotez spearheads the scientific crowds under agreed-upon slogans. It presents a perception where scientists are universally motivated by the common good and humanitarian purposes.

The idea of an ever-agreeing scientific community is a caricature of science. It portrays a scientist who exists in a never-ending – yet well-intended – battle against a common enemy: anti-science.

But science has never been uniform, ideologically, scientifically, or in terms of value judgments. Instead, each scientist brings unique perspectives and insights, contributing to the richness of scientific discourse.

Nevertheless, science is wallpapered with disagreements, cheating, integrity issues, and transparency problems. The scientific world, unfortunately, consists of data manipulation, bullying, unfair political games, dusty hierarchal structures, sexual harassment, discrimination, information bias, and conflicts of interest. Scientists are the first to admit that and will generally never try convincing anyone of an unscrupulous scientific make-believe.

We should highlight this reality to avoid entering a self-pitying entitlement, where we are clueless about the root problems. By actively trying to politicize the reason for scientific distrust, we add more fuel to tribalism and remain standing in our bubbles with a spasmodic index finger pointing left and right, but never back at ourselves.

We can learn quite a bit about how the general public perceives science by taking steps back and looking through their perspective. Are they questioning science or problems in science?

Science has problems

Of course, investigating anti-science sentiments requires narrowing down the problem from the general, all-encompassing scientific stage (anti-science) to more tangible issues, such as the parts of science that experience more resistance and questioning. Narrowing the topic down simplifies our quest to understand the root problem.

Let’s assume for a moment that Hotez’s warnings stem from his extensive involvement in vaccination-related discourses. He paints the devil on the wall based on his interactions with individuals opposing the current pandemic procedures. At least, we’ll entertain that thought. In this context alone, several factors can have affected the general public’s distrust of health policies – starting with financial interests and conflicts of interest.

Inequities and profits during the pandemic

We cannot ignore the nexus between profit-seeking and healthcare, particularly in drug development and distribution. It’s a crucial factor that has contributed to the perception of science as a realm where financial interests sometimes overshadow the public’s well-being. The intertwining of profit and science is a longstanding issue. However, it has gained more attention and scrutiny, leading to questions about transparency, ethics, and potential conflicts of interest.

Questioning obscure profits in science

Pfizer reported revenues of US$3.5 billion for COVID-19-related vaccines alone in the first three months of 2021. The company generated US$35 billion in net profits on COVID-19-related products in 2021 and 2022, according to the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO). Simultaneously, BioNTech and Moderna each made US$20 billion in profits.

Despite achieving these numbers and benefitting from US$100 billion in upfront funding by taxpayers, including so-called Advanced Purchase Agreements (APAs), the companies decided to increase vaccine prices.

A senior researcher at SOMO, Esther de Haan, notes that verifying the precise amount is challenging due to the lack of transparency in these agreements. “As far as we could establish, these agreements did not require companies to return money used to develop and produce vaccines, even when development failed, and the vaccine was never delivered.”

The COVID-19 vaccines.
Representation of COVID-19 vaccine doses by torstensimon.

Next, if we shift the gaze over the Atlantic, we find Oxford University, which committed to donating the rights to its COVID-19 vaccine in an attempt to provide COVID-19-related medicines for free or at low cost. These plans quickly changed after lobbying from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ensured AstraZeneca received exclusive rights to the vaccine. AstraZeneca is a big-time beneficiary of COVAX, to which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has provided substantial funding. As a result of these changes, and to rub salt in the wounds of people in need, AstraZeneca made no guarantee of low prices.  

Nonprofit promises and lack of transparency

These numbers contrast with the loud rhetoric at the start of the pandemic, chanting that companies would not reap profits during the pandemic and that they would provide the vaccines at cost. These commitments to ‘no-profit’ lacked clear and transparent terms. For example, companies could charge more once the outbreak or pandemic was considered over. Notably, Pfizer didn’t make such a promise, indicating its intentions to profit from the vaccines.

The issue of fairness becomes more compelling when we consider that taxpayers and public funds supported the initial scientific research. What does nonprofit refer to in this context?

Nevertheless, as US Congress representative Lloyd Doggett told Politico in 2020, “A drug company’s claim that it’s providing a vaccine at cost should be viewed with the same skepticism as that by a used car salesperson.”

Unfairness and tax avoidance

Numbers aside, contrast these profit-driven actions with the companies mentioned above, legal actions against countries that attempt to improve public health by reducing pricing and introducing generic alternatives. In addition to pressing unfavorable deals with poorer countries, the companies pay minimal taxes on their profits, often evading them through tax havens.   

The profit motives in the pharmaceutical industry can lead to suspicion and skepticism, sometimes fostering narratives that portray science and healthcare as having concealed agendas. Acknowledging these concerns and delving into the challenges they present for the reputation of science and healthcare is essential.

In pharma, we trust?

Considering all these characteristics, rather than people questioning science, does Hotez mean specific scientific areas influenced by conflicts of interest when he speaks of a rise of anti-science? Could he be alluding to individuals or entities who exploit an already flawed system to manipulate the course of science, including certain politicians and pseudoscientific companies? With a profit-driven healthcare system, it’s easy to imagine why the lines may get blurred.

According to Edelman’s annual trust barometer, people in the United States distrust the pharmaceutical industry. This trend is consistent with other Western countries, including Canada, France, and Germany.

While the reasons for varying levels of trust in the pharmaceutical sector in different countries are complex and not discussed here, it is noteworthy that, even though people may express skepticism toward the pharmaceutical industry, they do not necessarily distrust science. Instead, their skepticism appears directed at the opaque aspects of science.

Working for a more transparent science

In conclusion, the rise of anti-science sentiments is a complex issue requiring careful examination and specificity. The root causes of distrust often stem from a lack of transparency and conflicts of interest in specific scientific areas, particularly within the pharmaceutical industry. Ultimately, the problem is not inherently “anti-science” but rather “anti-opaque-science” or “anti-conflict-of-interest-science.”

We must prioritize transparency and ethical practices to address this issue and rebuild public trust in science. It is essential for scientists and institutions to actively address conflicts of interest, promote clear and open communication, and ensure that financial gains do not overshadow public interests. Perhaps effective policy changes can provide the framework to address transparency issues and minimize conflicts of interest. In the next part of the Anti-science series, we’ll closely examine the Ivory Tower of science, where some scientists may denounce ideas that challenge the established narratives.

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