The Problem with Science Funded by Industry

Lab Work

It seems like every week we read about new and groundbreaking research that proves food X is rich in nutrient Y, so we should consume it more often to reduce our risk of Z. While we have no doubt that many studies, especially those published in peer reviewed articles, have been carefully constructed, executed, and evaluated, it somehow seems that the results are more often than not in favor of the financial interest of the party who financed the study.

In an interesting article in PLOSRelationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles – the authors concluded very clearly that:

Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health.

In order to reach this conclusion, the authors scoured hundreds of published papers on the nutrition of soft drinks, juice, and milk.  Only papers that included information about funding were considered. In one type of study (nutrition interventions), there were no unfavorable conclusions when the study was funded by industry. But when independently funded, over one third of the studies had unfavorable conclusions. When funded by industry, a study was 7.6 times more likely to provide a favorable conclusion than when independently funded.

Why is this troublesome? Because today more thane ever, scientists are starved for funding. Universities and governments are far too small a source of funding for all the amazing research projects going on in labs across the globe. So food companies, as well as some commodity boards are glad to “help out.” That doesn’t necessarily mean their products are unhealthy. They might be super-duper. But it would mean so much more to us consumers to hear it from scientists who were not dependent on money from stakeholders in the results.

Our recommendation: the next time you hear about new research extolling the nutritional benefits of a product, the first thing you should look for is who funded the study…

 

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  • http://profiles.google.com/hays.mhays Michele Hays

    One other issue – not all industry-funded studies are published – in fact, studies that reach the opposite conclusion that the industry wants are frequently just not made available. This is particularly the case with medical research, but health research is the same. A campaign has begun to require publication of all clinical trials and to promote transparency in research http://www.alltrials.net/

  • http://www.andreawrites.ca/ Andrea T

    I suspect that this will be one of your most widely shared article. Funding bias isn’t new, and we’ve known about it for years, but it’s good to see that a study was done about it.

  • McKel Hill | Nutrition Strippe

    Agreed!! Michele Hayes ^ you bring up an excellent point too. There was a TED video discussing this same issue, it was wonderful.

  • http://nutritionstripped.com/ McKel | Nutrition Stripped

    Agreed!! Michele Hayes ^ you bring up an excellent point too. There was a TED video discussing this same issue, it was wonderful.

  • Sarah D

    Great article! Similar to what Michelle said, companies can run dozens of similar research products, only publishing the few with positive results. A good example is the fast food companies that market their products as part of a healthy lifestyle, when in reality their loaded down with chemicals.

  • James Cooper

    But you also need to indicate that published studies can be in high level peer-reviewed journals like Nature and considerably lower tier journals. The rankings of these journals are well known to those in the field, but are often not understood by the popular reporters who pick up the reports. And, sadly, even though I’ve published there, PLOS is at best a second tier journal.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Shields/100000508545040 Mark Shields

    Gotta disagree. Who funded it, is important, but shouldn’t be the first thing to look for. In fact, that may even cloud one’s judgement and make oneself just as biased as blaming the funding… food for thought… rather look at the design, strengths, weaknesses and type of study.

  • James Cooper

    That 6-year old paper has come under a lot of criticism and is hardly the final word. Considering that they somehow decided to exclude half the papers they found, it is hardly conclusive, and quite insulting to the integrity of the scientists and the journals. Certainly the reviewers take into account the funding sources in deciding on the merits of the papers.