Another in a series of questions we hope every reader asks when perusing the latest science news (previous posts here and here). After making sure that the latest "breakthrough" is based on some real research and finding out who did it, it's time to peel back the next layer:
#3 Who paid for it? Hundreds of scientific advances are published in research journals every day. But only a tiny fraction make it into the news. Many break into the news not because they're important in and of themselves, but because somebody pushed them out onto the TV, splashed them across the web, or spun them into newspaper headlines. Often that somebody has an agenda. As a critical consumer of the news, it's your job to see through it.
Most reputable science journals demand that scientists publishing research in their pages disclose whether they’re in the pay of companies who might profit from the results. A company making a new drug, for instance, might try to publicize the product by putting out positive research results. The company might get some PR firm to ghost-write the potentially profitable findings in the most positive way, then get the scientist to sign off, and submit it to a journal. It look like real science. But it's really a form of marketing.
The point is that it's not pure science. It's science done for profit. And good journals make sure that readers know about it by demanding that the authors of the paper disclose any potential conflicts of interest, any firms they work for that stand to make a profit off the results. The problem is that while the journal might include that information (the best ones do, but not all of them), news stories often don't. If you're really interested in knowing whether a story is slanted, sometimes you have to go back to the original research paper and check for yourself.
If the study was backed by a for-profit company, be skeptical. But it's not only corporations that you have to watch out for. The same rules apply if the research was done or funded by a public interest group devoted to promoting a particular cause. Any self-interested sponsoring group will be tempted to highlight results that favor their agenda and bury conflicting evidence.
It doesn't necessarily mean that the science is bad. It just means that it might be slanted, or skewed, or pushed beyond its real level of importance. Critical readers need to take that into account.