Industry-funded research #4: why it matters
I posted several examples of industry-funded studies this week in part to reduce my backlog but also because of charges that (1) doing so constitites ad hominem (personal) attacks on authors, (2) I should be focusing on the science, not who paid for it, and (3) I have my own ideological biases.
To the first point:
I do not see industry funding of research as a personal matter. I see it as a systematic problem.
If I see a study titled “Effect of food product X on disease Y,” I can often guess that
- The food’s manufacturer or trade association paid for it
- The study outcome will be favorable to the funder’s commercial interests
This phenomenon is so systematic that it has a name: The Funding Effect.
To the second point
Researchers who study funding effects, and there are many, note that the scientific conduct of the studies is not usually an issue. Instead, the influence of the funders shows up in the way the research question is framed or the results are interpreted.
The easiest way to explain the research question bias is to cite the requests for research proposals I often receive from food trade associations. These say: “we have (this much money) for research to demonstrate the benefits of our product on (one or more of these conditions).”
These groups will not fund research proposals unlikely to show benefits.
As for interpretation, industry-funded studies tend to report null results as positive; I posted several such examples this week.
To the third point
Yes, I have ideological or opinion biases and I try to be as clear as I can about them. All investigators have such biases; otherwise they wouldn’t be doing science. We all have something we believe in that we would like to prove. Such biases are not discretionary; everyone has them. In contrast, industry funding is about selling products, not science and is completely discretionary; investigators can do science without it.
I review the evidence for what I’ve just said here in my book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.
In it, I cite many other books and papers addressing these points.
We all come to the same conclusions:
- Industry funding biases research. But funded investigators do not recognize the influence, and deny it.
- The statement that accompanies many disclosure statements—“The funder had no influence on the design, conduct, interpretation, or publication of the results,”—is often untrue and must be taken with some degree of skepticism.
I see industry funding of food and nutrition research as a serious problem for public perception. Even when the research is not conflicted, it appears conflicted. That alone is a systematic problem.