And PIs spend a considerable amount of their time just seeking out grants to support their research. Many rely heavily on government entities like the National Institutes of Health, one of the largest funders of research in the United States. Some research funds come from industry sources, the results of which need somewhat greater levels of attention to suss out the valid results from the bias. Others find support from private donors and foundations.
This latter source is the bread and butter of cranks and pseudoscientists (well, with the addition of the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, but that's a whole other post). For example, Mark Geier (who has had his various medical licenses stripped for unethical conduct) and his son, David (who has no medical licenses and was found by the Maryland Board of Physicians to have practiced medicine without a license), essentially fund themselves through their non-profit corporations CoMeD, Inc. and Institute of Chronic Illnesses, Inc. Other anti-vaccine researchers, perhaps lacking their own wealth, rely on other individuals and families devoted to the "vaccines cause autism" myth who happen to have significant assets to fund their dubious research.
Such is the case with a new study by Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, titled Administration of aluminium to neonatal mice in vaccine-relevant amounts is associated with adverse long term neurological outcomes (back in December 2011, Orac pointed out the flaws of the study [Edited to add February 5, 2015: the study Orac discussed formed the basis for the 2013 study I discuss here.]). This study received significant funding from The Dwoskin Family Foundation and the Katlyn Fox Foundation, both of which have funded previous studies by one or both of this duo.
The Dwoskin Family Foundation
The Dwoskin Family Foundation is a philanthropic vehicle for Albert and Lisa Claire Dwoskin. They established it as a 501(c)3 non-profit foundation in 2001. The sole contributions to the foundation are from the Dwoskins themselves (not unusual for a family foundation) to the tune of $600,000 in 2010 and $750,000 in 2011. In addition, a significant portion of the foundation's assets are held in off-shore accounts and cash investments. The foundation's 990 form for 2011 (the latest available via GuideStar.com, free registration and login required to view) lists net assets at $3.5 million. Needless to say, they have a lot of purchase power, as it were.
Claire Dwoskin is a board member of the anti-vaccine group National Vaccination Information Center. Her husband, Albert, is president and CEO of A.J. Dwoskin & Associates, Inc. Through their foundation, they funded The Greater Good Movie, giving $25,000 to the project in 2010. Two years ago, they made two donations to the American Foundation for University of British Columbia, academic home to Shaw and Tomljenovic. One contribution, for $10,000, was just for "general expenses". The more significant donation was for lab costs for the "Aluminum Toxicity Project", for which they donated $125,000. This is in addition to approximately $200,000 for NVIC.
In 2011, the Dwoskins also underwrote the anti-vaccine "safety" conference in Jamaica. As Matt Carey notes, the venue was not exactly a frugal choice. The family, along with several other organizations, paid out a fair bit of change to cover the costs of the conference. Speakers included the aforementioned Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, as well as several individuals that have been described as quacks or cranks: Dr. Russell Blaylock, Dr. Richard Deth, founder of the antivaccine NVIC, Barbara Loe Fisher, and the disgraced Andrew Wakefield.
And, if their financial support of anti-vaccine individuals and organizations doesn't illustrate their bias that vaccines are, unquestionably, bad, this 2010 quote from Claire Dwoskin in response to John Stossel's segment on vaccines is rather telling:
I just saw the show and am so sorry to hear that other than what Chris had to say, not a word of truth was spoken by Stossel or Offitt. What a travesty – I hope someday he will recognize the error of his ways and realize the fear and damage that he is contributing to by allowing falsehoods to rule the air. At least his daughter is alive, smiling, educated and enjoying life. That cannot be said for the hundreds of thousands of vaccine injured children in the US. What his daughter went through is NOTHING compared to what the families of autistic children go through every day of their lives. No disease can match this record of human devastation. Vaccines are a holocaust of poison on our children’s brains and immune systems. Shame on you all.She accuses Dr. Offit of lying and says that no disease matches the "devastation" of autism. Mrs. Dwoskin apparently has not looked into the history of infectious diseases very much, at all. And what is it with anti-vaccine activists comparing vaccines to the Holocaust? How offensive is it to the survivors and their families and to individuals who have autism, to compare autism and vaccination to this:
|Bodies in a mass grave, from yadvashem.org|
Although it lists itself on its web site as a not-for-profit charitable orgnization, the foundation is not registered with the Canada Revenue Agency. Since they are not registered as a charity, unlike the Dwoskin Family Foundation, their financial filings are not available. In addition to the latest article from Shaw and Tomljenovic, the Katlyn Fox Foundation has been supporting them since at least 2011.
Although I had difficulty finding why the Dwoskins got involved in the anti-vaccine movement, the Katlyn Fox Foundation makes it quite clear why they are anti-vaccine activists. From their "About" page:
On the afternoon of August 16th 2001, our precious little girl Katlyn passed away in her sleep. She was only 22 months old. After conversations with various medical professionals and through extensive personal research we believe that Katlyn passed away due to complications from vaccines.I won't talk about their account, as I don't have any of the details. My heart does go out to them for the loss of their daughter. No parent should have to go through anything like that. I do think that their crusade against vaccines is misplaced, though, and how far they have gone down the anti-vaccine rabbit hole is evident from the posts on the foundation's site.
The foundation reproduces stories from such dubious sources as Natural News, NVIC, Suzanne Humphries and similar folk with established histories of playing fast and free with reality. Despite their mission to "provide parents with the best possible information about vaccines, so that they can make informed decisions on whether or not vaccines are suitable for their children", they instead promote myths and misinformation.
Follow the Money
Anti-vaccine activists make much of real or imagined conflicts of interest in studies examining the safety or efficacy of vaccines. Any study that receives funding from, well, just about any source that does not tout the anti-vaccine line is automatically written off as completely worthless and hopelessly biased in favor of vaccines. Funded or conducted by NIH or CDC? Biased, since the government, in the anti-vaccine mindset, is in bed with Big PharmaTM. Funded by a university? If the results favor vaccines, then it is biased, because the university, at some point in time, received funding from Big PharmaTM or the researchers have some other tenuous connection, clearly. If any financial link can possibly be found between the researchers and a pharmaceutical company, even if it's one of the researcher's brother's roommate's cousin's father's next-door-neighbor, that is sufficient reason to disregard anything the researchers have to say. The methods don't matter. The data doesn't matter.
But what happens if we apply their own reasoning to studies that they support? What about this latest study by Shaw and Tomljenovic? Well, it was funded by two organizations with well-established biases to finding fault with vaccines. If the source of funding is enough to hopelessly bias the results, then no matter the quality of the work done by Shaw and Tomljenovic, we should expect the results of their research to find vaccines or a vaccine component unsafe, that it causes some sort of injury.
It just so happens that the studies performed by Shaw and Tomljenovic that have been funded by the Dwoskin Family Foundation and the Katlyn Fox Foundation, including this most recent one, have, indeed, found that vaccines or their components cause injury and are likely unsafe.
The anti-vaccine approach to viewing conflicts of interest is not what I would call particularly productive or legitimate. While looking at the source of funding can be a flag that one should pay a bit closer attention to the details, it is not cause, in itself, to write off a study. Examine the claims more closely and pay attention to the methods used, certainly, but do not simply dismiss the study out of hand based only who funded it.
So What's the Point?
If the source of funding doesn't matter as much as anti-vaccine activists like to think it does, then you might be wondering what was the point of discussing the wealth and beliefs of the Dwoskins and the Katlyn Fox Foundation? It's two-fold, really.
First, while I disagree with the more extreme anti-vaccine activists in how much power to attribute to funding sources when it comes to evaluating the quality and conclusions of a study, it is important to understand the motivations of the funding source. If a study is funded by Merck, I will take its results with a bit of a grain of salt, especially if the results favor a Merck product. Likewise, if a study is funded by the Dwoskin Family Foundation, the Katlyn Fox Foundation or a similar group (e..g, NVIC), and the results favor the anti-vaccine stance, I won't just accept the results at face value. Knowing the motivations of the funding organization can serve as a signal to look for potential bias in the results. When a researcher appears to rely on funding from an organization or group with a very clear mission, they might design their study in such a way that they will find whatever results are favorable to their patron. The stronger the funder's convictions, the more likely it becomes a potential source of bias. It's not a sure thing, and it certainly is not a black-or-white metric, but it is a factor to consider and understand.
Second, I wanted to show that there are very, very wealthy individuals and groups behind the anti-vaccine movement. They have the resources to gin up studies that appear to support them, fund PR campaigns to spread their misinformation and lobbying legislators. I only highlighted two. There are plenty of others, like Barry Segal, Gary Kampothecras, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., businessman and founder of Generation Rescue J.B. Handley.
I may go into the actual science of the Shaw and Tomljenovic study later, if I have time (or let some actual scientists chime in on it), but the financial aspects of the anti-vaccine movement are what intrigued me. There is a lot of money there, and those of us who support vaccination based on the scientific evidence would be well-advised to keep that in mind. A lot of us don't have those resources (I certainly don't) and do our best with the limited resources we have.