The public was shocked (it shouldn’t have been) and angered (it should be) to learn last month that a half-century ago, the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to produce a research paper, published in the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine.
The paper, for which the industry got to cherry-pick the studies, downplayed the role of sugar in heart disease and pinpointed cholesterol and saturated fat as the culprits.
One of the scientists, the late Frederick Stare, advised Americans that it was fine to eat plenty of sugar and that Coca-Cola was a “healthy between-meals snack” for children. He also vouched for the wholesomeness of heavily processed foods, all while his nutrition department raked in funding from General Mills, Kellogg and Nabisco.
But that was then, and this is now, the academic world tells us.
There are ethical rules in place to prevent underhanded shenanigans and stronger rules about disclosing sources of funding, we’re told, and that’s true.
Just last year, however, Coca-Cola joined up with researchers from various schools, including the University of South Carolina and West Virginia University, to form an organization dedicated to informing us via science that sugar and calories in general aren’t the key to reducing obesity. Exercise is, they planned to say, even though a strong body of evidence shows that exercise has a relatively small effect on weight loss. Amid the ensuing outrage, the organization announced that it was shutting down.
And it was only five years ago that three Harvard scientists were disciplined for failing to disclose the millions of dollars they were given by pharmaceutical companies. One of them, Joseph Biederman, pioneered the diagnosis of bipolar disease in young children and the use of antipsychotics to treat them while taking hefty sums from the industry that makes those drugs.
Meanwhile, recent news stories have referred to studies finding that even mild dehydration can impair driving and mental performance. Both were funded by the bottled-water industry, as are many of the studies that try to persuade people that they must get at least eight glasses of water a day – even though there is no evidence to back up that contention, says Stanley Goldfarb, a University of Pennsylvania kidney specialist.
Then there were University of Scranton researchers who published a “hopelessly flawed” study that they hadn’t even conducted – it had been carried out in India – on the supposed weight-loss benefits of green coffee-bean extract. The Federal Trade Commission went after the product and the professors retracted the study.
There have certainly been well-conducted studies funded by companies. But there is far too much industry-funded research that encourages unnecessary, expensive and even potentially harmful behavior.
There’s an even bigger long-term impact. Scientists bemoan the lack of public confidence in science – notably in the benefits of vaccines and the dangers of climate change, even though those assertions are backed by mountains of solid research overseen by the government.
It’s true that some people would rather believe what they want instead of what the evidence shows. But they also believe, with some validity, that they can’t count on academic research to be pure of soul and clean of tainted interests. And media reports about new studies often inflate their significance while almost never including information about the source of funding even though that should be the standard, every single time.
The public has a stake in honest science, free of funding bias. But so do the scientists – at least if they want people to continue believing in their work.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.