Over the past several years, a growing challenge to scientific research has emerged in the United States. Beginning with the publication of a series of articles in prestigious medical journals and spreading to the mass media, the way research is funded, reviewed, and communicated has come under increasing scrutiny. Although the initial medical journal focus was on the impact of pharmaceutical research on physicians and the practice of medicine, the concerns raised ultimately pose a serious threat to the credibility of mainstream scientific endeavor, with broad implications for food science.
Concern over the issue and its potential impact on research led to a forum on credibility in science at the Institute of Food Technologists’ 2003 Annual Meeting + Food Expo® last July. Panelists shared their differing perspectives and described ways of responding to a growing threat to science communications. They agreed that the issue is long-term and will need to be managed on an ongoing basis.
The threat, if it goes unanswered, could seriously undermine the confidence that both policy makers and the public have had up to now in the strong science foundation that underlies the U.S. food safety and nutrition regulatory structure. A crisis of confidence, if it comes to that, would impact not only the availability of talent and financial resources for research, but also the influence accorded science in public decision making; the prestige and reputation of the great research institutions; and the credibility of the scientists who do the research.
In short, the threat is to scientific research, the continued provision of a scientific perspective to policy advisory groups, and the communication of well-grounded science to the public, who desperately need to better understand science and the implications for food issues.
An Evolving Crisis
In fall 2000, almost simultaneously in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, articles appeared that were critical of biases and conflicts of interest among medical professionals in their relationships with patients and the pharmaceutical industry which marketed prescription drugs. Boyd and Bero (2000) raised questions about the increasing involvement of academic researchers with corporate sponsors. Lo et al. (2000) raised the possibility that private profit could, and did in fact, influence the way research is performed and published. Melander et al. (2003), writing in the British Medical Journal, concluded that research funded by pharmaceutical manufacturers was less likely to be published than work funded by other sources and that studies sponsored by pharmaceutical companies were more likely to have outcomes favoring the sponsor than were studies with other sponsors. Activist groups opposed to what they regard as corporate science have become increasingly vocal over the past several years. One group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, has created a Web site (http://cspinet.org/integrity/) exposing the “industry ties” of not only trade and professional associations, including IFT, but also individual researchers perceived to have too close an affiliation with industry. Although activists maintain that industry funding does not necessarily corrupt the scientific research it supports, that is clearly the message. And that message is increasingly resonating not only with the publishers of scientific journals but also with the journalists who tell the public about the latest research findings.
--- PAGE BREAK ---
Media interest in the issue has evolved over the past three years. Mainstream outlets from Reuters Health to The New York Times have broadened the concerns about the relationship between science and private industry funding (e.g., Anonymous, 2002; Beeman, 2002; Begley, 2002; Hotz, 2003; Rimer, 2003). Such stories have helped to shape an environment in which top scientific researchers and top research institutions may find their credibility in question when appointments to scientific advisory committees are being made. They may also find themselves marginalized in the public discussion of such scientific issues as food safety, functional foods, and nutrition, including obesity and dietary guidelines.
The Scientific Community’s Reaction
The response to the conflict-of-interest media barrage has been varied. Medical journals have taken the issue very seriously, tightening their disclosure policies and even taking the extraordinary step of releasing in fall 2001 a joint editorial in which editors of more than a dozen internationally renowned medical journals voiced their support for rigorous new disclosure rules for researchers wishing to publish in their journals (Davidoff et al, 2001).
Universities have similarly strengthened their conflict-of-interest disclosure guidelines. Scientific societies recently have become more engaged on the credibility issue, having previously seemed less energetic about it—possibly reasoning that scientific protocols safeguarding research integrity already exist. In the interest of good scientific practice, IFT adopted a Code of Professional Conduct (IFT, 1999), although it is not widely publicized beyond its members. The instructions for authors for IFT’s Journal of Food Science also addresses scientific integrity (IFT, 2003).
But the issue is one of perception as much as anything else. Conflicts of interest represent a potential for bias, not necessarily actual flawed or biased research. Furthermore, they are often in the eye of the beholder, and no matter how stringent the code of ethics or how rigorously applied the rules of disclosure, it may not be possible to persuade some skeptics that research funded by private interests is free from bias.
Up to now, for the most part, the discussion about the issue has been among journalists, policy makers, and activists. Notable for their silence have been the research scientists themselves, and their input would be invaluable. They could point out, for instance, that bias in scientific research can come from a number of directions—not only from the funding, but also from the preconceptions, beliefs, and ambitions of the human beings who conduct the research.
For example, in academia the pressure to publish and to develop a strong track record of funded projects to secure tenure can create at least the perception of a conflict of interest. A scientist’s desire to be preeminent in the field, to succeed in the competition for prizes or even public acclaim through media fame can be sources of bias in conducting research. Academic institutional pressure on researchers to achieve greater professional visibility and prominence can distort an otherwise dispassionate research style. In short, there can be many potential sources of bias.
Funding has no more or less potential for influencing scientific research than any other source of bias. As British biochemist Terence Kealey argued in his 1996 book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, “There will always be the private funding of science, and whether it comes out of companies or it comes out of universities, the reality is that all scientists select what they publish. And the reader doesn’t know what the scientists have chosen not to publish. In the end you just have to have a marketplace of competing ideas. That’s why pluralism of funding is so important. It is important to have government funding and foundation funding and industrial funding and endowment funding of universities. With a multiplicity of funders you are more likely, ultimately, to get the truth” (Minkel, 2003).
--- PAGE BREAK ---
Fortunately, the scientific process, including peer review, is designed precisely to overcome biases, errors, and other unintended (or even intended) influences on the outcome of research. Appearances need to be addressed as well. Just as the ever-present conflicts need to be managed through the application of rigorous scientific process, so too do the media and public perception of bias (all kinds) and the subsequent threat to scientific credibility need to be managed. This is an issue that requires prudent management. It is the integrity of the research process that needs to be the focus of scientists’ energy, not the rewards that can come from successful scientific enterprise, whether measured in dollars, peer acclaim, tenure or job promotion, or any other currency.
The goal to strive for, though it may never be perfectly achieved, is collaboration and collegiality among scientists. And although in our free enterprise system, competitive motives will pose a challenge, pressing toward secrecy and a lack of openness, scientific credibility rests on transparency, peer review, and replicability of research results. There will always be conflicts of interest, either real or perceived, but they can be managed and minimized by having in place institutional policies of transparency, disclosure, and research best-practices by which the critics of science will find little public credence in their cynicism. Managing conflicts of interest is not a job for one or another organization or foundation. The credibility issue ought to concern all who are engaged in the process of science, not just researchers in the private sector.
Some positive outcomes may well result from a reexamination of good scientific process: research institutions may be able to reduce instances of sloppy work or even outright deceit in the conduct of research; scientists may find license to expend less energy searching for easily fundable projects and more energy on scientific issues most worthy of their investigation. As a consequence, the public discussion about biases of all kinds can be expected to focus greater attention on the scientific process itself and less attention on the idiosyncrasies of individuals and isolated projects.
Communication Is Essential
There is one additional point to be made: good science demands good communication. Like other industries in a free economy, science flourishes when the public demand for it is robust. It is crucial that scientists promote public curiosity in their work and public confidence in the quality of their product. In an era of rapid and unrelenting media presence, managing the credibility issue will ultimately require more than following good rules. Scientists and scientific organizations will do well to become advocates for their enterprise. Food safety and nutrition research and the development of new food production technologies are too important to allow for anything but the highest public trust in the integrity and openness of the work.
Awareness and understanding of the threat need to grow substantially in the scientific community, if researchers are to keep their place at the table of responsible public discourse. The challenge to their credibility and that of the work they do is real and immediate. The issue cannot be resolved with a speech or an editorial or even a series of public discussions. It must be managed, on a continuing basis, whenever the need arises; and it will arise increasingly in the months ahead.
Author Gravani, a Professional Member and Fellow of IFT, is Professor of Food Science, Cornell University, 11 Stocking Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853. Author Leveille, a Professional Member, Fellow, and Past President of IFT, is Vice President, Technology, Cargill, Inc., 15407 McGinty Rd. W., Wayzata, MN 55391.
Anonymous. 2002. Funding affects researchers’ “spin” on results. Reuters Health, Aug. 2.
Beeman, P. 2002. Industry ties seen as distorting medical studies. Los Angeles Times, Dec. 1.
Begley, S. 2002. Science panelists are picked for ideology, not expertise. Wall St. J., Dec. 6.
Boyd, E.A. and Bero, L.A. 2000. Assessing faculty financial relationships with industry: A case study. J. Am. Med. Asssn. 284(17): 2209-2214.
Davidoff; F., DeAngelis, C.D., Drazen, J.M., Hoey, J., Højgaard, L., Horton, R., Kotzin, S., Nicholls, M.G., Nylenna, M., Overbeke, A.J.P.M., Sox, H.C., Van Der Weyden, M.B., and Wilkes, M.S. 2001. Sponsorship, authorship, and accountability. J. Am. Med. Assn. 286(10): 1232-1234.
Hotz, R.L. 2003. Ag scientists feel the heat. Des Moines Register, Jan. 22.
IFT. 1999. Professional code updated. Food Technol. 53(7): 124-125.
IFT. 2003. Instructions for authors: IFT scientific journals. www.ift.org/pdfs/jfs/JFS-2003bstyleguide.pdf.
Lo, B., Wolf, L.E., and Berkeley, A. 2000. Conflict of interest policies for investigators in clinical trials. New Eng. J. Med. 343(22): 1616-1620.
Melander, H., Ahlqvist-Rastad, J., Meijer, G., and Beermann, B. 2003. Evidence b(i)ased medicine-Selective reporting from studies sponsored by pharmaceutical industry: Review of studies in new drug applications. Brit. Med. J. 326: 1171-1173.
Minkel, J.R. 2003. The economics of science: Interview with Terence Kealey. March 3, www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=0005277B-64C2-1E5E-A98A809EC5880105.
Rimer, S. 2003. A warning against mixing commerce and academics. The New York Times, April 16.