BMJ: Debating the food industry's role in public health research
- Industry funding for public health research has been at the center of a fierce debate in the academic world, with academics arguing both sides in a recent feature in BMJ.
- According to proponents for industry-funded research, public health researchers should not shun accepting food industry funding because in many cases, a company or industry organization may have interests aligned with the researchers. These include better ways to reduce salt and sugar. To mitigate risk of skewed findings, safeguards can be put in place to manage use of industry funds and the structure and analysis of the study itself.
- Opponents argue that companies by nature are designed to be profitable for shareholders, which can require opposition to public health policies that put those profits in jeopardy. The research results companies fund tend to be biased and favorable toward the funding company, they said.
One way to showcase transparency, according to these academics, is to offer funding to the academic or research institution itself.
Coca-Cola ran into this problem when it offered $550,000 to James Hill, a University of Colorado professor, director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, and president of the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network. The nonprofit, Coca-Cola, and Hill were at the center of controversy over the past year due to GEBN's claims that exercise is more important than diet in combating obesity. The soda giant funded the organization. Hill has since stepped down from his post at Anschutz, the university returned a $1 million donation from Coca-Cola, and GEBN has shut down.
Manufacturers can use research funding opportunities to align interests with consumers. Funding research for how to reduce sugar and salt in processed foods, for example, could be mutually beneficial. It targets common public health issues while also enabling manufacturers to be one step ahead of any mandates or voluntary targets the government releases guidance for in the future.
Another option is for manufacturers, either individually or in collaboration, to develop funding models that would permit companies to continue funding research in such a way that protects that research's funding from bias (real or perceived). The academics in this report suggested "dedicated manufacturer taxes, licence fees, or legally mandated contributions (with the funds raised then administered independently from industry)" as being among the most transparent options with fewest conflicts of interest, according to BMJ.
Industry funding supports less than one-tenth of research in the U.S. or the U.K.