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Dr. Binks Blog

Financial Conflicts in Science and Media

Posted on February 23, 2013 by admin

In recent days there has been a renewal of a longstanding debate about research integrity and financial conflicts of interest of scientists. In a perfect world we would all receive funding that was completely removed from potential bias. This is far from a perfect world. In our attempts to create the impression of objectivity it appears some have evolved a belief that corporate money is inherently bias-producing and that public funding agency money like NIH, USDA etc is not. This belief is likely due to the perception that through the intervening public agency, this money is somewhat removed from direct corporate influence. Logically then, it is not the source of the funds we should be focused on, but the potential for the funding source to influence the science and the safeguards that are in place to reduce potential influence. To this point, it is important to note that public funding does not always achieve this. For example, some academics that have leveled very public criticisms of their corporate sponsored colleagues in recent years for example are heavily funded by USDA. This it could be argued would create a potential bias to find in favor of sugar, corn and other agriculturally related solutions and for example find against artificial sweeteners. So what we have done by focusing on the relative merits of the SOURCE (public vs. private) of the funding is become blinded to some potentially very real bias. Similarly, NIH money that is in part funded by corporate taxes is often seen as sufficiently removed from direct corporate influence to be considered inherently ‘unbiased.’ This too is potentially problematic as the pressure to find in favor of your original set of hypotheses and to find statistically significant results is very high in this arena. Furthermore, it is often the case that only those results that are statistically significant are publishable (despite the scientific reality that no difference can be equally informative). Thus the science has the potential to be influenced towards favoring pursuit of one set of outcomes over another based on the fact that if one does not publish from NIH grants, future funding is in jeopardy (as opposed to the best scientific directions to take). Does this mean we should immediately negate out of hand all findings from NIH or other public funding sources – of course not. We simply need to evaluate objectively the potential bias in forming our opinions based on the science (not the funding source).

In terms of both individuals in the media and fellow scientists questioning the influences and biases of published work; I could not agree more provided as some colleagues are fond of saying; we “question the science, not the scientist.” Certainly we need to objectively evaluate the merits of the science. However we should do so in a way that creates an atmosphere of mutual respect and engenders a healthy self- and other- evaluative atmosphere. This in turn may give us all pause to redouble our efforts to question and monitor our own potential biases, make financial disclosure, and work to reduce bias. On the other hand, simply attacking a scientific paper (or scientist) based on funding sources becomes a part of the very problem we aim to solve. It creates reluctance to fully disclose and may also produce reluctance for well-intentioned funding sources to support desperately needed research for fear of being publically shamed and ridiculed. We need open and honest transparency of funding coupled with realistic unbiased appraisals of the science.

A final note on the role of media. I find the open and free exchange of science in the popular media to be a wonderfully positive development. No longer is our valuable research buried in dusty journal archives never to be seen by the public it may inform. But the proliferation of the ‘direct-to-consumer’ model for research dissemination is in its infancy and not without growing pains. Research is often over-interpreted and at times the authors’ conclusions misrepresented. This does not mean we should stop working with the media, in fact it means we as scientists need to work with them even more closely to improve accuracy in reporting. Most relevant to the subject at hand is the issue of ‘media disclosures.’ Media outlets are often linked financially and through other means to a wide range of potential conflicts of interest. Those who write for media outlets have lengthy financial histories that are not required to be disclosed at the end of each article they write (despite their major influence on the interpretation of the science in the public arena). Perhaps all who comment publically on science in the media need to post a similar list of disclosures of every person, company and other financial supporter for themselves and all publications in which they have written where financial support has been provided (past and present). So for example, the authors of the recent NEJM “Myths” publication provided such disclosure to allow us to make informed decisions regarding the content of the paper. Yet the media who criticize the scientists do not appear provide equivalent disclosures of their own potential conflicts of interest that may bias their reporting. It would therefore seem to be very appropriate to request that all individuals and organizations with opinions on scientific articles in the media be held to the same standard as the scientists. This will allow the public access to the information needed to make informed judgments about the opinions put forth.

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