Why colleges hide the truth
- Research is an expensive endeavor when it meets the gold standard of a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial
- To cover financial costs, universities and scientists have discovered ways to circumvent conflict of interest rules, encouraging industries to financially contribute and seriously entertain industry interpretations of the data
- Food industry giants have used academics to further their agenda, from the sugar industry asserting their product does not contribute to obesity to Monsanto alleging genetic modification has no effect on health
- Hidden ties between industry and science influence research results and negatively affect your health; until greater controls are in place, it is important to evaluate the funding behind research recommendations
Decades of research show excess sugar damages your health, yet for many years the sugar industry was successful in burying the evidence and misdirecting the public.1,2 Industry-funded research is often bent on proving the efficacy of their product, in much the same way the sugar industry ensured their financial security by burying data demonstrating negative health effects.
One example is the anti-inflammatory medication Vioxx, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after research demonstrated it was “scientifically proven” for arthritis. Only after causing an estimated 60,000 deaths was the drug finally pulled from the market.3
“Scientifically proven” has become a catchphrase used in published studies and is one the public and physicians can easily misinterpret. Research studies and statistics can be set up to demonstrate a drug or food is safe based on the initial question asked at the start of the study. This allows the researchers to orchestrate the results, increasing the perception that science has proven a concept, while in reality the data have been heavily manipulated to support a preconceived objective.
When applied appropriately and executed in an unbiased and unprejudiced manner, the scientific method works. Unfortunately, in the case of many studies the research is not unbiased or unprejudiced, leading to selective results serving the agenda of the industry funding the study. This is a serious flaw that ultimately affects your health care and one the industries are fighting to keep secret.
Your Right to Know Stands in the Way of Industry Interests
Your food choices may be guided by recommendations from friends, physicians and even advertising. These recommendations may take the form of dietary guidelines, such as those emanating from the sugar industry, as they continually seek to shift blame for heart disease to fats. Food manufacturers may make claims, as do yogurt companies about your intestinal health. However, these recommendations often conflict with independent research.
In his work to achieve greater transparency, Gary Ruskin, organizer at the consumer health watchdog organization U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), continues his investigation into the connections between food industries, agrochemical companies and universities where research is performed.4 Acting on a hunch that interactions between these groups would reveal secrets, Ruskin filed multiple freedom of information act (FOIA) requests to receive public records crucial to uncovering details of interactions between these groups.
A number of his requests have produced documents exposing relationships between companies like Syngenta and Monsanto and universities, such as the University of Florida. Large agrochemical companies are fighting to keep these ties a secret, as they speak volumes about the research bias underlying many health recommendations today.
In an effort to complete his search of publicly-accessible records not released in the FOIA request, he filed a lawsuit against the University of Florida alleging they violated the Florida Sunshine Law.5
The Sunshine Law6 provides a right of access to governmental proceedings at the state and local levels to any gathering where two or more members of the same board discuss actions that may come before the board. In a press release discussing the lawsuit against the University of Florida, Ruskin states:7
“We are conducting an investigation of the food and agrochemical industries, their front groups and public relations operatives, their ties to universities, and the health risks of their products. The public has the right to know if and when taxpayer-funded universities and academics are collaborating with corporations to promote their products and viewpoints. We seek these records to learn more about the University of Florida's collaboration with the agrochemical industry.”
Legal Wranglings Deepen
While we may hope influence of the scope demonstrated by the sugar industry won't happen again, only transparency will alleviate this concern. It is apparent industries and universities have no desire to assure public health by opening their records to scrutiny. In an effort to squash the lawsuit against the University of Florida, Drew Kershen, retired University of Oklahoma professor who has served on the board of directors of companies with ties to Monsanto, argued these documents would violate his privacy.
The motion for summary judgment was denied. Subsequently, Kershen filed a discovery request in order to question Ruskin about why he wants the records in the first place.
Michael Morrissey, cofounder of MuckRock — a nonprofit collaborative news site for journalists, researchers, activists and citizens to request and share government documents8 — believes this line of questioning is concerning,9 because if the information is open to one person, it is open to everyone and it should not matter why the requester is asking for documentation.
Food Industry Uses Academics to Push Their Agenda
Links between the sugar industry and researchers, or between agrochemical companies and researchers, are not the only two associations the food industry has had as they seek to push their financially-driven agenda on the American people. USRTK maintains an investigation page on their website10 where findings are listed on topics such as Coca-Cola, glyphosate and Disney-funded food research. Journalists use this documentation in developing articles about manufacturers and industry giants.
For instance, an article in Forbes11 using data discovered by USRTK outlines the connection between Coca-Cola and researchers who compared diet soda to water and found sodas were healthier; a study where subjects switched from regular to diet soda to lose weight, and one which questioned the methodology in a study finding a link between soda and diabetes. Each of these studies came to a favorable conclusion for the Coca-Cola Co. and each were paid for, or financially supported by, Coca-Cola.
Universities are also involved in another hot button health concern: genetically modified foods. In 2015 The New York Times12 exposed University of Florida professor Kevin Folta as an industry-funded third-party expert on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Folta, who had vehemently denied ever receiving any money from Monsanto, was caught having been less than forthright about his conflicts of interest when his email correspondence with Monsanto was released in response to one of USRTK’s FOIA requests.
In response, Folta sued The New York Times,13 also filing a subpoena against Ruskin and two other employees, essentially demanding the organization produce over 100,000 documents. While FOIA public records are available under federal law, they reveal details of relationships between organizations and industries affecting public health. In a new diversionary strategy, private parties are attempting to prevent disclosure of documentation supporting their involvement, thus holding up the entire process.
Blocking Conflict of Interest Issues Requires Secure Safeguards
In an op-ed published in the Journal of the American Medical Association,14 Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, discusses the conflict of interest existing between the food industry and nutritional research, making several salient points.15 He notes:
- National Institutes of Health funding has decreased by 22 percent in the decade leading to 2013, with only a small fraction of the budget supporting nutritional research.
- At the same time total spending for research on nutrition across all federal agencies was approximately $1.5 billion per year, compared to $60 billion spent on drugs, biotechnology and medical devices.
- Since a substantial burden of diet related diseases and scarce federal funding increases danger to the public, there must be greater alignment between public health and the mission of nutritional research in order projects do not exploit public good.
- Industry sponsors should have no role in project design, implementation, analysis or interpretation of the data.
- Funding must be transparent and fully acknowledged.
Universities Motivated to Protect Academics and Financial Associations
In documentation released from the University of Florida, Folta instructed Monsanto on how to avoid disclosing funding for his work by depositing money into the University's Special Help for Agricultural Research and Education (SHARE) contribution account.
Universities have strict conflict of interest rules in place, but the foundation can receive contributions and then issue money to the individual researcher’s program, thereby circumventing the conflict of interest rules. This loophole exists because the foundation operates as a separate, nonpublic entity.
Although it's in the best public health interest to avoid conflict of interests between those doing the research and those funding it, most donations to university foundations are granted a waiver for indirect costs, expenses necessary for the operation of the organization, such as salaries for accountants, but not associated with one particular department.
By being granted a waiver for indirect costs, corporations can essentially piggyback their donations onto students and taxpayers and simultaneously keep their funding hidden. As noted by the sponsored research administration at Florida State University:16
"It is important to remember that the inclusion of these charges results in the support of research efforts across the campus. To request waivers of negotiated and allowable charges means a decreased SRAD [Sponsored Research and Development Trust Fund] pool and a corresponding reduction in the research and creative activities that the university stimulates and supports."
Hidden Ties Influence Research Results and Your Health
Hidden ties between university researchers and industry affects your health care as biased research influences your physician’s decisions. Publication bias affects every field of medicine, and positive findings are twice as likely to be published as negative ones. Nearly half of the clinical trials by drug companies have not come to light in the past decade.
For example, prompted by trial litigation, researchers sifted through previous data determining the safety of the antidepressant drug Paxil, finding evidence contradicting the drug company’s claim that the drug was safe for teens.17 Former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Marcia Angell, believes the record may also be distorted by what is not said as much as what is published. She commented:18
"Any reputable journal is at the mercy of what is submitted to it and must choose from whatever comes over the transom. Many studies never see the light of day because their findings are negative. There is a heavy bias toward positive studies, and this negative bias is a real problem. A company may conduct 1,000 trials; if two are positive, they get FDA approval and are published. The other 998 never see the light of day."
Funding Significantly Influences Research Results
In an effort to assess the level of research bias in industry-funded studies, researchers analyzed 60 published studies that looked at the health effects of soda, examining potential links between funding sources and study outcomes.19 Essentially, what they wanted to know was whether negative studies (studies that failed to find an association between sugary beverages and obesity and diabetes) were more likely to have received industry funding than positive studies.
As suspected, of the 60 studies, 26 found no link between sugary drinks and obesity or diabetes and ALL were funded by the beverage industry. In the 34 studies where a relationship was found, only one had received industry funding. As noted by the researchers,20 "This industry seems to be manipulating contemporary scientific processes to create controversy and advance their business interests at the expense of the public's health."
Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest industry-funded “science” undermines public health while creating financial windfall for manufacturers. Until safeguards are instituted to eliminate the influence manufacturers have on scientific outcome, it will be important to evaluate the funding behind any recommendations you decide to take to heart.
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