In 1994, political satirist Christopher Buckley released Thank You for Smoking, a farcical account narrating the woes of tobacco industry lobbyist Nick Naylor that was later adapted into a critically acclaimed film. The twin works accomplished more than simple entertainment. They showcased the inner workings of ‘Big Tobacco’ and the manners in which private industries alter public perception of scientific research.
Although we may imagine ourselves in 2017 to be better informed via the internet of possible corporate chicanery, there are still many ways in which private industries, like Naylor, “filter” the truth.
However, all of this begs the question: why is private funding a concern? The empirical answer is that the source of a research study’s finances may very well bias its conclusions. In one paper, researchers discovered that out of 206 articles on the health effects of non-alcoholic beverages, an industry-backed paper was more than seven times more likely to have a favourable conclusion than a paper with no industry funding.
Much like cigarettes in past decades, junk foods are one of the main comforting or relaxing vices we turn to. And, like their predecessor, there is a scientific consensus that junk foods are harmful to one’s health. Thus, as one might expect, the titans of the junk food industry have spent vast amounts of money funding nutritional research that they hope will either vindicate their products or discover some hitherto-unknown benefit to consumption in large quantities.
A recent target is the US National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health study. The study will measure a sample group’s cardiovascular health as they consume 15 g of alcohol once a day for 90 months. The results will be compared to a control group that has stayed sober for the same period.
Although it is a publicly funded organization, the NIH was unable to obtain financial backing from the US Congress to carry out the study, forcing it to look for private backers. Unfortunately, this has led to the dubious arrangement of 67 million USD being provided by a cabal composed of companies Anheuser-Busch InBev, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Heineken, and Carlsberg — all among the largest producers of alcoholic beverages in the world.
Some private entities don’t stop at funding otherwise unaffiliated scientists. For organizations with the means and finances, it is not unheard of to create an entirely new corporate branch or private laboratory dedicated to the research of their choice. Frequently, these labs operate solely for the purposes of research and development of new products, such as Google’s Verily Life Science, which is currently developing smart contact lenses.
Other times, scientists research the health benefits and shortfalls of already existing products. A prime example is Mars, Inc.’s Center for Cocoa Health Science, dedicated to unravelling the multifaceted mysteries of the cocoa bean, since its inception in 2012. Mars, Inc. has published studies in over 140 peer-reviewed academic journals since the early 1980s.
In 2013, one paper analyzed industry and non-industry funded studies on the link between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain. They found that industry-funded papers were five times more likely to determine that there was no link.
Furthermore, there is evidence that industry-backed research not only yields biased theoretical results, but it may distract from effective applications as well. A study found that randomized controlled trials proposed by researchers funded by private companies were less than half as likely than independent researchers to propose a change in diet as a method to combat obesity.
All of this points to a need for greater transparency from researchers. “The funding, research, study design, data analysis, manuscript writing, and publication — all of which are part of the process and all require full transparency,” said Dr. Mary R. L’Abbé, Chair of U of T’s Department of Nutritional Sciences. “Not all should be controlled by the funder… Once the study is funded, its conduct, analysis, and publication are based on the study results, not the funder’s needs or objectives.”
But there are more links in the experiment-to-announcement chain than just the researchers themselves. Once conclusions are drawn and test tubes are put back in the cabinet, scholars must have their findings published in an academic journal to see their results applied beyond the laboratory. Of course, academic journals are also staffed and edited by humans who, like researchers, are then also potential recipients of a corporate payoff.
Published in September in the British Medical Journal, a paper by five University Health Network scientists looked at the growing practice of private industries giving financial payments to academic journal editors.
They scrutinized the payments made to 713 editors from 52 American medical journals. The main measure sought was the amount of money in USD received from private pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers by each study participant in 2014. All participants were at least associate editors in the publishing hierarchy, and all journals were cited as influential.
The authors divided the payments into two categories: research payments, which were for research related activities such as coordinating clinical trial enrolment, and general payments, which were for items more particular to the recipient such as meal or flight reimbursements. Due to their more ambiguous and personal nature, general payments were the focus of the paper.
They discovered that while editors received a median general payment of $11, the mean general payment was a whopping $28,136. This massive right-skew to the data can be explained by the fact that editors in certain esoteric fields, such as endocrinology or cardiology, seemed to attract much more money.
“It is speculative, but certain fields, such as cardiology and orthopedics, have developed innovation in medical devices and this may be driving the increased payments by industry to physician editors in these fields,” explained lead author Dr. Jessica Liu. “Other specialties, such as endocrinology, have innovation in novel drug development to an extent that is not seen in other fields, such as pathology or family medicine, for example.”
Evidently, there is a problem with privately funded research in academia. In her paper, Liu called for editors-in-chief of academic journals to consider the possibility of excluding industry-tied individuals from editorial positions.
However, there are issues with this approach. “This is where a blanket rule on conflict of interest doesn’t exactly work to me. It’s a small world out there after all; if you start eliminating these kinds of conflicts-of-interests you’re not going to be left with many experts,” said Dr. Emanuel Istrate, who is coordinator of VIC172Y1, a course focused on the interactions between society and science and the ethical responsibilities of scientists. “You can find a million people who have no industry ties, but how qualified are they?”
Once more, it seems that the answer lies in increased transparency. “We propose that a good place to start would be for all journals to have accessible, comprehensive, and transparent conflict of interest policies for editors,” said Liu.
Istrate, too, is optimistic. “Now most pharma journals declare conflict of interest or at least declare there is no conflict of interests. Journals are starting to insist a lot more on seeing the reliability of the statistics so that you can’t just have bad statistics or bad sample sizes and just hide it under the rug. So, I’m optimistic things are changing.”