Yesterday I tweeted out an article, Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets. The title, and frankly, the story is a bit slanted. I wasn’t totally comfortable about the piece…but I really hate the soft drink industry. So much of our obesity problem would go away if people stopped drinking the stuff. The funding does not necessarily entail a particular conclusion. Rather, conclusions can lead to funding. But, we’ve all seen the research which suggests that pharmaceutical companies do trials which have suspiciously high success rates. And scientists are human beings,and it seems that even unconsciously biases can slip in. We need to balance the tensions and not get carried away by an extreme perspective about the nature of human motivations. Scholars are no saints.
But the ultimate focus should be on the science. That’s really what’s at the heart of the matter. My friend Kevin Klatt, who studies nutrition at Cornell, outlines his own concerns at length about The New York Times piece, Funding: Tales of Defamation:
Until the industry funded research argument is balanced by an equally loud message that non-industry funding is highly limited, those shouting the loudest do little to address their own issue. This notion that researchers seeking industry money are doing conflicted research does little but subtly suggest that academic researchers find a new job or risk having their reputations threatened due to their funding source (no, I’m not being dramatic – go look at article’s written about Susan Jebb). Keeping up with the academia lifestyle is busy enough without a bunch of people who aren’t in your field telling you how you should fund yourself. If you get the time, I’d also urge you to consider educating individuals’ to encourage NIH to fund nutrition research that has been established as a priority by organizations like ASN. As evidenced by the seemingly consistent stream of low-fat vs low-carb studies in the literature, NIH doesn’t seem to be paying attention to these.
What’s a scientist to do? This is a fallen world, and we are of it. Obviously there are cases where the conflict of interest is extreme. But often funding from private sources is what researchers have to do to keep their work afloat. If money was what scientists were after…they would actually go work for their funders.
Second, I want to point you to what’s going on with Kevin Folta. He’s a passionate researcher at University of Florida who works on GMOs. You know where this is going. The Radical Activist Attack on a Teacher:
When asked about my speaker fees I always just say, “Take what you think would be customary and donate it to my outreach program.” We’re talking thousands of dollars here.
In Fall of 2014 the Monsanto company offered support for the program, and I thought that was great. Love ’em or hate ’em, my workshops were teaching everyone from kids to scientists, so I was glad to welcome their support.
It never was a secret. At universities, our records are public, and people know where our funding is from. You can probably find it online if you look hard enough, but just ask and I’m glad to tell you about who sponsors my research or who sponsors my outreach.
Last week the public information voluntarily hit the right activist ear, and they went ballistic. Screams of “Shill!” could be heard everywhere from drum circles, to hackeysack games, to the Whole Foods Gluten Free Bisque Repository. After all, $25K is a lot of money, so to most people this was the smoking gun of high collusion they always suspected. Heck, anyone that talks about science must be getting paid off.
Kevin’s been put on blast by activists. It’s Mon$santo all the time. He’ll persevere, because he didn’t do anything wrong and untoward. But now those who are not heavily engaged on the topic are going to have to discern whether Monstanto is poisoning our crops and buying our scientists.
I guess it shows that sometimes the substance of science matters less than style. No one really knows anything about nutrition. I exaggerate for effect, but you know of what I speak. In contrast, we know a fair amount about GMO. But in both cases there are passionate public debates, and egos being bruised and reputations shredded.
I’m glad I’m not very controversial!