Five Corporate Strategies to Manipulate Science

Art by Nick Rooney

Ever since the rise of capitalism and corporations, the manipulation of science has been at the centre of the endeavours of big companies and corporations – like those related to tobacco, asbestos, chemical, pharma, sugar, fast food, and oil and gas. This is a threat to human existence as well as planet earth.

For decades, large profit-making corporations have been very busy in obscuring the harm they and their products cause to human health and to our planet.

One of the key instruments in their fight against nature – and us – has been a staunch and prolonged rejection of any sort of state regulation – often built around the ideology of neoliberalism and the ever illusive (nobody has actually ever seen it!) free market that “takes care” of everything.

Yet, what corporations do, actually reaches far beyond by simply taking part in the beloved free market – it reaches deep into the influencing of science. There are about four core instruments that corporations and their henchmen like corporate lawyers, corporate PR agencies, and lobbying organisations use to – often pretty successfully – manipulate science – and quite often rather indirectly.

All too often these corporations work behind the scenes in governmental committee rooms, research funding agencies, state and ministerial offices, and the like. These four instruments are:

1) the manipulation of scientific methods to pre-determine research outcomes;

2) he reshaping of criteria that establish what scientific proof actually is;

3) direct and indirect threats against independent scientists and scholars; and finally,

4) the promotion of policies that increase the reliance on industry-generated “evidence”.

These and other corporate methods are used to create misinformation and – more importantly – deliberate disinformation. Some of these methods are designed to create doubt in the minds of the general public. They serve as corporate propaganda – now called Public Relation.

Yet, the purpose of manipulating science is also to foster ignorance, to block out knowledge of the harms that products and corporate practices create – while simultaneously claiming to have a good ethics code, and corporate social responsibility provisions. Of course, what corporations do is often in stark opposition to what environmental science tells us.

Even the otherwise pro-corporate CNN had to – finally – admit on the 12th of January 2023 what many knew already, Exxon accurately predicted global warming from the 1970s – but continued to cast doubt on climate science. Exxon too, has a rather beautifully crafted code of ethics and sustainability report.

Beyond all that, the corporate manipulation of science also extends to occupational and public health regulations – particularly when it jeopardizes corporate profits and power.

Today, we see an unprecedented level of corporate funded science. Worse, this has been strongly growing in recent years. Perhaps it signifies Upton Sinclair’s time honoured dictum that,

it is difficult to get a man to understand something

when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

To fight science, corporations often use very distinctive (dis)information strategies involving corporately funded science. It eliminates the Humboldtian idea that universities, science, and scientific instrument should be free of corporate-political influence.

Instead, the scientific process should be independent of outside interference. We have known this for a very long time. In fact, ever since Galileo Galilei, we know that science works best if the external power elite remains very distant.

Science should not be driven and financed by corporations. Worse, corporate-shaped science is often sold as “independent” research by the apparatchiks of corporate PR.

Such corporate PR strategies are mostly used by eight corporate sectors: alcohol; chemicals and manufacturing; extractive industries (e.g. mining); fast food and sugar drinks; fossil fuels (oil & gas); gambling; pharmaceuticals (Big Pharma) and medical technologies; as well as the most infamous tobacco corporations causing the death of millions of people.

These are no small fish. Instead, the manipulators of science are more often than not, large multi-national corporations. In the food and drink industry, for example, these companies and corporations include confectionery, sugar-sweetened beverages, breakfast cereals, meat, infant formula, food additives, and dietary supplements.

In any case, corporations use five key strategies to manipulate science and the use of science in policy and practice.

1. The Manipulation of Science

The first strategy used in the corporate manipulation of science is about influencing the conduct and publication of science to skew evidence in industry’s favour. This means the corporate manipulation of the conduct and publication of scientific evidence. It is done in an attempt to pre-empt or refute independent science which challenges corporations and their products.

One of the key aims is to distract attention away from independent evidence that threatens the profits – and in some cases, even – the future of a corporation. To secure profitability and their existence, corporations also use what they call “safe research” (read: their research) to promote corporate-favoured interventions.

It draws on a favourite ideology of neoliberalism: industry self-regulation. The idea is to smokescreen the true goal of corporations: the creation of ineffective (read: no or pro-business) regulation.

Besides giving corporations a free hand by eliminating regulation (the much-hated red tape), the second goal is to prevent mandatory regulation of industry. State regulation is feared by corporations like the plague.

Yet, corporations go to extreme length in preventing science to come to the forth. Tobacco corporation Philip Morris once even ordered a lead scientist to actually close down his laboratory, to kill the animals, to suspend all further investigation; never try to publish or discuss his work; and to find work elsewhere.

If this fails, there is always the cherry-picking of scientific papers for the inclusion or exclusion of evidence. In addition, corporations also use access, funding, and political power in order to manipulate and to undermine research conducted by truly independent organisations. These are often state-funded research organisations set up independently from corporate influence.

In any case, the ideology of neoliberalism provides a rather helpful tool for much of this, as it advocates the elimination of the state regulation in favour of the free market (no regulation). Once the free market (read: corporations) runs science, independent research goes out the window and Coca Cola becomes a health drink – miraculously.

Yet, when research conducted independently proves to be challenging to corporations, corporations and their PR agencies also put in place strategies to control access to science. In one incidence, a pharmaceutical corporation was found to be threatening legal action against researchers who attempt to publish critical results.

2. Manipulating the Interpretation of Science

The second strategy of the corporate manipulation of science seeks to influence the interpretation of scientific data and results. This is designed to undermine unfavourable science and create a distorted picture of the evidence. The corporate challenge to science is often euphemistically framed as “sound science”.

The strategy also involves raw data to be “re-analysed” from unfavourable science in order to undercut it. This extends deep by assaulting scientific findings and the deliberate misrepresentation of scientific evidence.

In the PR battle over science, this remains a useful strategy because it challenges adverse scientific findings that implicate products and manufacturing practices that cause harm to human beings and the environment.

A far more direct strategy is the direct attack on scientists and scientific bodies. Here, the corporate goal is to weaken any opposition to corporate-sponsored crypto-science.

3. Manipulating the Reach of Science

The third corporate strategy is to manipulate the reach of science. This can be done via so-called echo chambers inside which corporations can propagate corporate-sponsored science.

The goal is to create an “echo chamber effect” whereby corporations develop a communicative space in which favourable science, and its messaging about “their” science is widely disseminated and amplified. Simultaneously, unfavourable evidence is hidden or isolated.

Echo chambers give the wrong impression that there is a multitude of corporate-friendly messages and voices that represent science. Suddenly, corporate institutions such as, for example, front groups created by industry (astrofurfing), third-party organisations like corporate think tanks, so-called professional associations (read: lobbying), and corporations PR firms, etc., all seemingly push the same (corporate) version of science. Often, such appearances are enhanced by so-called “experts” set up by allied industries.

4. Public Relation

The fourth strategy is to create a corporate-friendly public policy environment capable of shaping the use of science in policy decision made in favour of corporations. British American Tobacco, for example, invented a PR campaign called “Better Regulation” or “Smart Regulation” with the goal of getting pro-business regulation put in place.

The key idea behind this was to make it harder to pass public health policies which can counter the interest of corporations. It gives highly resourced and well-financed corporations an opportunity to slow down, weaken, or – ideally – prevent public health policy that saves lives (e.g. OHS) but was bad for corporate profits.

5. Trust Corporate Science

The final and fifth strategy is the manufacturing of trust in corporate research while simultaneously engineering distrust in research findings that challenge corporations. The gist behind this strategy is to create the aura of legitimacy around corporations and their science. In other words, corporations manufacture trust in themselves and their semi-scientific findings.

Corporations do this by, for example, directly funding of academics. More often, it is done through a so-called “independent agency”. The apparatchiks that run universities like to call this: industry partnerships or third-party funding.

Here is the trick. In deliberately cash-starved universities – as supported by the free market ideology of neoliberalism – this is done by offering generous research grants, honoraria, awards, and lucrative so-called “consulting” fees.

Meanwhile, students can be enticed to work for corporations by offering lavish scholarships. The ideological goal of all this is to normalize the corporate presence in science, universities, and academia.

It creates dependence on corporations and corporately funded research. Money – not curiosity – becomes the driver of science. Here are three examples on how this works:

+ Berkeley, for example, received $50 million from Novartis – a Swiss pharmaceutical corporation, i.e. Big Pharma.

+ Worse, ExxonMobil contributed to the $225m Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University.

+ Still even more worse, tobacco corporation Philip Morris even created its very own Worldwide Scientific Affairs Programme.

In any case, based on these five key strategies, one can see that the corporate manipulation of science and scientific evidence reaches far beyond a handful of corporate-corrupt actors working nefariously to skew evidence. Generally, these five strategies of the corporate manipulation of science have three overall goals:

1) they seek to create doubt about the potential harms of the products of corporations, their practices (environmentally harmful manufacturing, for example), and about policies that might reduce sales and corporate profitability;

2) these strategies also promote corporate policy responses and techno-solutionism to complex problems – often, these problems are created by corporations in the first place; and finally,

3) it seeks to legitimize the role of corporations as valued stakeholders in science and society. This is geared to what German philosopher Habermas once called the colonization of the lifeworld, i.e. the infection of previously non-commercial areas of society (like science) with the ideological virus of commerce, i.e. money and profits

Most disturbing is actually not just the scale and consistency of the corporate manipulation of science, but that this extends beyond influencing the production, credibility, and reach of science.

In other words, corporate manipulation has taken on a political momentum. This is camouflaged by the neoliberal fairy-tale that the economy and politics are neatly separated.

Covered by this ideology, corporations and their henchmen – corporate lobbyists, PR firms, industry funding bodies, astroturfing, etc. – play a rather active role in the manipulative shaping of science, research policies, and actual scientific practices. This has far-reaching implications.

Potentially one possible solution might be – as introduced in Italy, California, and Thailand – is the setting up of a levy, particularly on pharmaceutical, tobacco, alcohol, fast food, oil & gas, etc. corporations, to be used to fund independent research on their harmful products and their destruction of the natural environment.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).