The Correspondence “Conflicts around a study of Mexican crops” (Nature 417, 897–898; 200210.1038/417897a) was an excellent reminder to readers of what it means to be a scientist in a value-laden world. But surely nobody can be surprised that those involved in this controversy are accusing each other of conflicts of interest, or that indeed they have such conflicts?
I would not expect scientists in the genetic-modification industry to publish experiments showing whether genetically modified organisms pose a risk to the environment or human health, because their priorities are improvements and applications. The search for risk is therefore left to researchers who have some reason, whether ideological or any other, to hypothesize that there might be a risk.
What seemed to me the most important aspect of the Correspondence debate was not the possible conflicts of interest themselves, but the honesty of all the participants. Conflicts of interest by authors of publications can be handled by openly declaring them, yet the potential honesty of the authors is less easy to decipher. This is what we should worry about, because in order to survive as a profession we need to ensure that, in the words of your Opinion article (Nature 418, 111; 2002): “trust in science remains deservedly high”.
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A comparison of conflict of interest policies at peer-reviewed journals in different scientific disciplines
Science and Engineering Ethics (2007)