- Researchers from the University of Cambridge and The University of Queensland surveyed international health researchers and stakeholders — funders, policy officers and journals — to assess ways to prevent or manage conflicts of interest with the food industry.
- They found "high levels of agreement on principles" for both groups — 65% for researchers and 65% for stakeholders — but more contentious views on values-based decisions about which commercial entities were acceptable to interact with and accept funding from. Their findings were published in the journal Plos One.
- "Some researchers are unaware that they are susceptible to conflicts of interest or that they might be at risk of unconscious biases adversely affecting their science," Katherine Cullerton, a co-author of the report, said in a UQ release. "Ultimately, all of these factors represent significant reputational risks for researchers." She and her colleagues plan to develop guidance to help researchers better manage such risks.
As government research funding continues to tighten, researchers from around the world increasingly turn to industry to fill in the gaps. This study aimed to build consensus on how to navigate the conflicts that can arise, looking especially at work examining the impact of certain foods on diet and health.
Cullerton noted these funding constraints are particularly challenging in low-income countries, which many food makers are targeting as a potential market for opportunity. Another ethical minefield for researchers is that food companies may want to influence food and public health policy, and could steer funding toward specific questions to deflect from any poor health associations with their products.
Coca-Cola, for example, funded a study by the Global Energy Balance Network in 2015, which downplayed the role of junk food in obesity and focused more on exercise as a solution. Public health experts slammed the findings, and, after it was revealed the soda company had funded the group, Coca-Cola ended up disbanding it. The company then said it would enhance transparency and disclosed it has invested nearly $120 million in scientific research from 2010 to 2015.
Another study last year from Italian and U.K. researchers found scientific research sponsored by Coca-Cola and Mars "appeared to skew the evidence" toward industry-favored solutions.
While there are inherent risks to researchers' reputations from conflicts of interest or unconscious biases, as the study noted, the food industry also faces its own issues if it tarnishes consumer trust by manipulating information.
According to a recent study from the Center for Food Integrity, an increasing "trust deficit" exists between consumers and food companies, federal regulators and farmers. Only 44% of those surveyed said they had a positive impression of food manufacturing. In fact, in a list of 11 sources, the research showed that food companies placed last in trusted to provide safe food.
Despite ethical concerns, Cullerton said that there are downsides to keeping the food industry away from research because it can be more difficult to achieve healthier dietary practices among large consumer groups without access to food industry data and eventual buy-in that leads to action.
Ethical challenges posed by food industry-funded research might start to ease once guidance and risk assessment tools for scientists and stakeholders are in place, but developing a plan will likely depend on further research.