“Strong safeguards” necessary for industry funded public health research to protect against bias

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

Related tags Public health Research and development

Public health research can benefit from industry’s deep pockets, but it must be shielded sufficiently from sponsors’ influence to ensure that any policy decisions based on the findings are in the best interest of the masses and not the corporations that funded it, advocates agree in The BMJ April 20. 

They disagree, however, on how restrictive those protections must be.

The food industry’s views are “critical to developing public policy”​ given that it has access to key data related to the nutritional quality of food, consumers’ shopping habits and cuts across all parts of the supply chain from farmers and manufacturers to retailers and food service, Paul Aveyard, professor of behavioral medicine at the University of Oxford, and Derek Yach, executive director at the Vitality Institute in New York, argue in a “Head to Head”​ editorial in The BMJ​. 

However, they acknowledge, that “many elements of the industry promote and sell food that undermines health”​ and, therefore, some players have a vested interest to fight against some public health causes.

“Therefore, not all cooperation is appropriate,”​ they write. For example, they add, “although industry’s views are critical to developing public policy, its presence when such policy is decided is inappropriate.”

They argue the line between what is and is not appropriate can be held by “strong safeguards to avoid bias and the appearance of bias.”

These include ensuring researchers have no commercial interest in the product, payments go to the organization and not individual researcher, payments are restricted to the cost of the research “to avoid researchers feeling beholden to the company,”​ only statisticians who are independent of the investigators who designed and conducted the study can analyze the results, and the research results are published regardless of the outcome.

“Providing safeguards are in place, no reasonable person should doubt the integrity of collaborative research,”​ they say.

Best practices are good in theory but not consistently followed

The problem is, not all of their suggested safeguards are followed all the time.  In particular, the last safeguard about publishing research regardless of the outcomes has come under question recently given the number of industry funded studies with outcomes that reflect well on industry far outweigh those that have negative findings.

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, has tracked the outcomes of sponsored studies for the past year and she found only 12 out of the 168 industry-funded studies she collected from March 2015 to March 2016 had negative findings.

Anna Gilmore and Simon Capewell, professors of public health at the University of Bath and University of Liverpool respectively, noticed a same trend.

In their response to Aveyard and Yach in The BMJ editorial, they cite research that found industry funded research is five to 88 times more likely to produce outcomes favorable to that industry than non-industry funded research.

They argue the imbalance comes from industry manipulating evidence in its favor, strategically communicating that evidence to influence public and political opinion and ultimately minimizing negative regulations.

“Previously secret documentation shows they are working to ensure research and researchers they fund deflect attention from their products and unwanted regulatory interventions,” ​they write, explaining: “They promote weak or ineffective interventions aimed at individuals rather than upstream population level regulation.”

As a result, even if scientists control the data and are free to publish, if industry determines the questions asked by the study then it “can distort the evidence base to defend itself from attack,”​ they write.

Radical new funding models needed

Based on these premises, the two argue that taking research funds from industry is not worth it unless there are “more radical funding models that allow corporations to fund research while protecting that research from their influence.”

They suggest mandating taxes, fees or contributions from industry that are administered independently from industry. 

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