In Scientific Research, It's Full Disclosure for Thee, Not For Me
by Jeff Stier
"Commercialized" science distorts science, writes the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) on the webpage of its "Integrity in Science" project. The very name of the project suggests that such science somehow inherently lacks integrity.
Attacks like these on industry-funded science are often cloaked in a call for simply more disclosure of the source of funding for a given study. And who could be against more disclosure?
The problem is that the only type of disclosure in vogue these days is that which comes from industry science. And for many people, that's just fine; as the folks at CSPI surely know, simply reporting that science is funded by industry – even when there is no impropriety – undermines the credibility of the findings. It harms our understanding of science, and even deters industry from funding much-needed research, since business leaders know the credibility of anything they fund will be received with suspicion.
The media eagerly comply with CSPI's suggestion that they "routinely ask scientists and others about their possible conflicts of interests and to provide this information to the public."
But if the source of funding really does suggest the possibility of bias, the "disclosure" advocates aren't giving us the whole story. They are focused only on one type of funding – one type of potential for bias. But disclosure can't be selective.
Take last week's Institute of Medicine (IOM) report that called for giving the FDA greater regulatory authority over dietary supplements. The recommendation may be a wise one, but the media failed to take note of the fact that the report was sponsored by the FDA, even though the IOM's own press release made that plain Yes, the FDA funded a study that calls for giving the FDA more authority … and the media, which widely touted the report, failed to point out this obvious conflict.
This shoddy and uneven reporting happens all the time, but the conflicts aren't always so obvious. Countless studies are funded by foundations and, just like industry, foundations have a view of their own and an agenda to further. A study funded by the well known Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for instance, may list the Foundation as a funder, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The media that report on the study should point out what may not be clear from the foundation's name: it regularly seeks more government regulation. Far from funding all science and letting the chips fall where they may, RWJF has an agenda and the studies it funds support that big government agenda
Other studies, produced by environmental activist groups, are funded by donations to the groups' individual donors. You don't need to be a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist to note that those funders tend to be plaintiffs lawyers. Conflict? Apparently not to reporters.
The credibility of any study ought to be evaluated based on the substance of the report. Be it the science, or in this case, the policy arguments. Just because the report was funded by the FDA doesn't mean it shouldn't be considered valid.
But if groups seeking greater regulation, such as CSPI, are so concerned about disclosing conflicts, why aren't they crying foul over this blatant lapse. It seems these groups really aren't concerned about conflicts. Rather, they are against the interests of the corporations that fund science – and they seek to discredit their science, regardless of the merits.
Industry does tend to support studies they believe will help their business. What company would invest in a study the believed would undermine their interests? But that doesn't mean they skew studies; it simply means they invest in studies that are likely to come out in their favor. And the simple fact is that so do advocacy groups.
In this era of "full disclosure," some less-diligent news outlets use the source of funding as a shortcut for evaluating credibility. Since funding is supposed to only be a red flag for a potential bias, why not look under the hood of a study and see if that the potential conflict actually led to a methodological flaw? Some reporters have told me (off the record, of course) that that would be too time consuming and expensive. Fair enough.
Perhaps the industries that fund science aren't the ones that we need to scrutinize more closely. We ought to challenge the media for distorting science by self- righteously highlighting potential conflicts in industry-funded science, while giving a wink and a nod to science funded by the government and activist-loving foundations with their own agenda.
If disclosure is the rule of the day, the media should require equal and full disclosure -- not just disclosure from industry source. Talk about bias!