An Urban's Rural View

We Need To Know Who Pays For Research

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Did you read about the study that said eating chocolate helps people lose weight? Too bad. It was a hoax -- a science journalist attempting to demonstrate the flaws in science journalism. Sad to say, he succeeded. Countless readers took it for real, rejoiced and reached for a candy bar (…).

How about the study showing kids who eat candy weigh less than those who don't? It wasn't a hoax. But it was paid for by the National Confectioners Association. You may also have seen studies concluding exercise is more important than calories in keeping weight off. They were financed by Coca-Cola.

Food-industry critic Marion Nestle looked at 170 industry-commissioned studies and found 90% reached a pro-industry conclusion. Shocking? No, it's probably what most of us would have predicted. Companies get what they pay for. What's disturbing is the lack of disclosure. How often do we read about a study without knowing who paid for it?

The latest variation on this theme was a report that the sugar industry in the 1960s paid three Harvard scientists for research downplaying sugar and highlighting fat as a cause of coronary heart disease (…). Newly uncovered correspondence and other documents indicates an industry association not only paid, it chose the studies for the scientists to review and received advanced assurances the conclusion would favor sugar. Only now, 50 years later, were the documents uncovered.

In the wake of this revelation, the New York Times' online "Room for Debate" blog asked, "Does industry's role in science need to be reduced to curb its influence?" The answers given by four experts varied significantly in emphasis and tone but showed surprising agreement on some key points (…).

The angriest industry critic among the four was Gretchen Goldman, lead analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her contribution was headlined, "Research Accountability Is Needed to Counteract Industry Subterfuge."

She called for universities, scientific societies and the private sector to agree to follow "best practices such as peer review; disclosure of conflicts of interest; public availability of research findings, methodology and data; incentives for researchers to reproduce results; freedom to publish research; and deterrents against scientific misconduct."

The least critical was Jeffrey Drazen, a Harvard Medical School professor and current editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. He argued that "leading biomedical journals" have already set the standards needed to protect the integrity of research, including "full disclosure of the sources of funding and the financial associations of the authors."

Do journals that are neither "leading" nor "biomedical" observe these standards? Drazen didn't say. But he and Goldman seemed to agree on the need for these standards. So did a third debater, Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The fourth debater, Harvard provost for research Richard McCullough decried cuts in federal funding of basic research. All four participants conceded that the U.S. needs research of both kinds, corporate and federally funded. The issue, Drazen wrote, is not who pays for the research but whether it is conducted in accordance with the highest standards.

This is not the first time questions have been raised about industry-supported research, nor is it likely to be the last. As public awareness grows, companies will need to demonstrate their commitment to research integrity if they want their studies to be believed. For the public will be increasingly wary.

There's a lesson in this for journalists, too. Whenever we report on a study we should point out who funded it -- and if we can't find out, we should question the study's conclusions. Too many reporters report on research studies with insufficient skepticism.

But that's changing, thankfully. There was an example in the New York Times just the other day (…). In a report on conflicting claims about the environmental impact of ethanol, the writer noted a study contending that the carbon dioxide released by ethanol was not being absorbed as fast as expected. But in the next breath, the Times article reported on a rebuttal to the study -- and noted that the study had been funded by ... you guessed it ... the American Petroleum Institute.

Urban Lehner



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