SCIENCE, POLICY, FUNDING, AND COMPETING INTERESTS
There is an ongoing debate in the academic community and wider society about how science is funded, the independence of scientific research, and its use in public policy development. This can be a controversial matter, especially if private companies are involved. ICAP as an institution is at the center of that debate because of its status as a non-profit organization set up by alcohol beverage companies, it sits at the conjunction of the public, for-profit, and non-profit sectors and seeks to use scientific and fact-based evidence, to promote policies that reduce the harm that the irresponsible use of alcohol can do in society.
When talking about science, we need to know what type of science we are talking about. There are differences between the physical and the social sciences with the “science” of economics sitting somewhere in between, each having very different standards of proof and types of evidence. Despite the fact there are a great many conflicts of opinion and strong differences over what the evidence shows in many scientific fields, there is a great trust in the scientific method as a way of resolving such disputes. “Conflicts of interest” also needs to be defined, because “interests” are different from the clash of thoughtful opinions and judgements of which science is full. Interests imply that the contending parties have a vested position they need to protect or promote; most specifically where companies are concerned, a financial one. However, there are also conflicts of interest in terms of authority and status in any given field of enquiry. When science leaves the laboratory and enters into the everyday life of society, different groups want to make use of it in different ways such that science is brought into public debates and policy decisions. The appeal of science in these conflicts is often an appeal to the objectivity of the scientific method and the “truth” it exposes, such that contending parties seek to appropriate science to support their particular “interest” or point of view.
The widely held stereotype of the formal three sectors, of government, for-profit, and non-profit is that government is there to serve the people, however poorly in some cases, and so is the non-profit sector. However, for its part, the for-profit sector is, as its name suggests, there to make profits. Its activity primarily benefits the owners of the business and therefore not necessarily the people or wider society. The pursuit of profit is the lens through which all business behavior is viewed, because if a private firm does not make a profit, it will cease to exist. That is the first rule of the free market economy, but not the only one by any means. Consequently, whenever a company supports scientific research it is assumed that it is in support of its profit-making motive and therefore in some way tainted before it is even undertaken.
It is essential to work out much more carefully what role private firms and the profit motive can constructively play in the social whole, to value the many contributions that the for-profit sector makes to society and human wellbeing, while better managing the problems its activities can create for society too. While profit seeking is a natural part of private enterprise, profit maximization is another matter. Unfortunately, leading academic theorists argue that the sole purpose of business activity is maximizing profits. However, large businesses that have existed for decades, if not hundreds of years, did not get where they are by short term profit maximisation; they survived and grew by long-term profit optimization. That is balancing their profit generation against the needs and expectations of multiple stakeholders including employees, customers, consumers, communities, and society at large, not just shareholders. Any company that is seeking repeat business from customers, a stable work force, and a reputation of substance in the community and society, needs to behave in a responsible way.
On the other hand, governments, non-profits, and the informal sector are very actively engaged in a wide range of business activities, including highly controversial ones. For instance, the largest seller of cigarettes in the world is the Chinese Government, the Russian and Swedish Governments own their alcohol beverage industries, and in developing countries like Ghana, approximately 80% of all the alcohol consumed is produced in the un-regulated informal sector (1). Indeed, even the non-profit sector produces alcohol - monasteries produce fine wines and liquors.
There are many constituencies in the world hostile to the working of the market economy and one of the most concerned is healthcare and related research workers. Their concerns are not mainly ideological, rather they are often honest and practical, seeing as they do speak against the adverse consequences of over consumption of food and drink. It must feel to professionals that it not remotely possible to square the circle of profit-seeking activity and human health and well being. It must be said that there is irresponsible behavior in the for-profit sector driven by the profit motive, and it can occur in the alcohol beverage industry when viewed overall. However, that is not all there is to be found there, and anyone who has read the Diageo Corporate Citizenship Report, will know the company has a very good case to be regarded as a responsible citizen of our global society. It is a real player in trying to address the negative social aspects of alcohol, because it can see that they are not in its interests or those of society as a whole. The company is seeking to make profits, but not at any price, and it has shown itself to be willing to engage with others to address many of the problems it faces. If it were not seeking to do some research into the key social issues it faces then it would not be a responsible company. Provided funding for research is within a clear and agreed framework of ethics like the Dublin Principles, and it should be welcomed. Diageo does have economic and other interests to promote and needs to be transparent about them, but at the heart of this debate, there needs to be a commitment by all parties to the scientific method as a way of illuminating complex issues.
The problem for those who are suspicious of the private sector is that private enterprise is here to stay. Society wants it, and part of the “deal” in de-nationalization and other measures in giving the for-profit sector a greater role in society over the past 30 years, is that the for-profit sector must play a role in addressing the problems that are associated with its activities. Not least because it has unique insights into consumers’ attitudes, specialist technical skills, and understanding of other aspects of the problems we face. In addition, it has massive resources, which can be deployed to address social problems, such as advertising power. Unfortunately, it is not widely accepted that profit-seeking activity and social responsibility can exist side by side. As a result, an opportunity for constructive engagement between all the players in the production and distribution of alcohol products is being lost.
ICAP has made great strides in creating space for those private firms with a commitment to social responsibility (and not all have it, particularly some of the smaller producers and retailers) to be seen as legitimate players in the public debate about the social impacts of alcohol. However, that legitimacy is still not fully accepted, particularly in the health and academic communities, and nowhere is that lack of legitimacy felt more than in the fields of research funding and evidence based debates, despite the very useful and practical contribution the Dublin Principles represent.
Further developments that might strengthen ICAP’s legitimacy in the research and wider public debates on alcohol and society might be to move beyond its private producer base and become a global authority on all forms of alcohol production, distribution, and consumption across all four sectors. Alcohol production and distribution is not just a private sector activity, even in the West. It is vital to see it as placing the for-profit component in its proper context. What is suggested is essentially taking a total industry approach as a way of building confidence in the engagement of the private sector as one player among others in understanding the benefits and problems of alcohol around the world. The production, marketing, and distribution of alcohol is a global phenomenon, found in most societies and across all four sectors of social organization, including the informal sector, or five if the criminal element is included.
However it must be acknowledged that these types of developments are all indirectly related to the research agenda, its funding, and its use in policy formulation. What ICAP aims to do is set a better context for discussing that agenda. They might help to change the climate in which the debate about these matters is conducted so that controversy about the role of the for-profit sector in the research agenda, its funding, and evidence-base policy might be improved.
There are no doubt many issues inherent within the research, research funding, and policy agendas that need to be addressed. Unless the wider issue of the legitimacy of the private sector in various areas of public life are dealt with broadly and effectively, progress on the more “technical” aspects of how research is funded, conducted, and used in policy debates will be slow at best, and possibly show little progress at all. This may seem very challenging but the beverage alcohol industry has made a good start, and the whole of human society needs to better learn the skills of cross-sector understanding, trust, and effective working together.
1. Grant, M. ed. Alcohol and Emerging Markets. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1998.