Sunday, June 21, 2015

Clear & Credible Science, Please

Human Nutrition

Scientific Clarity:  Mustain writes: “Let’s be clear: Science is a tool to get us closer to truth. When food companies are paying for science, they are not paying for truth. They are paying to use science as a tool to protect or enhance their profits. Sometimes that paid-for science happens to align with the public’s interest (as we understand it so far). But if any of its findings start to threaten food industry bottom lines, it’s a safe bet that the science is going to be a lot harder to get funded. And leaders at the American Society for Nutrition know that.”
Image Credit: Patrick Mustain, for Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

Source: Scientific American

An opinion piece, by Patrick Mustain, in Scientific American raises the question of whether a science journal ought to not accept corporate donations, notably from companies with which it ought to have an arm’s-length relationship, to better ensure scientific credibility and impartiality of their research findings; it also raises the broader philosophical or ethical question of whom such journals primarily serve; is it the general public or is it themselves?

The article looks at the particular case of food & nutrition and how the Food Industry both advises and influences governments and their regulatory agencies in ways that do not often benefit the consumer. Mustain, a communications manager at the international ocean conservation group Oceana, and a freelance health and science writer and digital media producer, writes:
Public health attorney Michele Simon today released an exposé on the conflicts of interest in the American Society for Nutrition. The ASN is the most prominent organization of nutrition scientists, publishes three scientific journals, including the respected American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and lays the scientific foundation for much of the dietary and nutrition policies and advice in this country.
The report details a flood of food industry influence within the organization, including membership on the ASN’s “Sustaining Partner Roundtable” ($10,000 per year). The list of 31 sustaining partners features names like McDonald’s, The Coca-Cola Company, and the Sugar Association. Also highlighted are conference sessions sponsored by the likes of PepsiCo, Kellogg, and the National Dairy Council. The report describes organizations like the Grocery Manufacturers Association or the Corn Refiners Association paying the ASN as much as $50,000 to host or sponsor sessions at its meetings.
Of particular concern, writes Simon, are the conflicts among the leadership of the organization. Her primary example is David Allison, who serves on the editorial board of the ASN’s prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Allison is in a position to determine which studies get published and which do not, and the list of his food industry ties is long, including gifts, grants, and contracts from the World Sugar Research Organization, the National Restaurant Association, Coca-Cola, and more.
In a world of dwindling public research dollars, is it wrong for organizations like the ASN to accept corporate money? In answer, the report, which is subtitled “Has the American Society of Nutrition Lost All Credibility?” does not mince words. And neither did Simon, when I spoke with her on the phone.
There is a lot of conflicting and confusing information surrounding the issue of health and nutrition; this explains, to some degree, why this is so. A fundamental issue is how such journals influence public policy, not so much, it seems, by basing their findings on science, but on the desire or necessity to please their corporate sponsors. Credibility is used a lot today, but perhaps not enough to convince the editors and publishers of such academic and science journals of its importance. I suspect that too many science journals are self-serving, that is, primarily serving the interests of their benefactors. Such is the public perception; and, yes, it does matter.

Equally important, there has been much reporting of late on what besmirches the reputation of such journals, including plagiarism, false and manipulated data, and, of course, corporate influence. These journals can’t have it both ways; if they want public trust and a large audience of readers, they need to gain it by restoring confidence in their findings, and in seeing that the findings are based solely on science, independent from any outside influences. (They might have to rethink the taking of corporate donations.) Otherwise, they will remain small publications that no one outside their circle reads or takes seriously.

For more, go to [ScientAmer]

The June solstice, the summer solstice here in the northern hemisphere, begins today at 16:39 UTC, or at 12:39 p.m. EDT here in Toronto and in the rest of the eastern time zone. It is also Father’s Day; happy Father’s Day to all dads out there.