The “elephant in the room” in academia these days is, without a doubt, industry-funded research. Health experts from around the globe are raising the red flag, and for due reason: industry-funded studies tend to favor the sponsor.
This is a topic that requires quite a bit of nuance because it ultimately deals with subconscious bias, the framing of research questions, and the interpretation of data. The actual research and methodologies in play are not flawed; this is not about fake data.
We can now add yet another study — published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine — to the “proceed with caution when dealing with industry-funded studies” pile.
The New York Times‘ Anahad O’Connor summarized the findings.
- “Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, looked at studies of soft drink consumption and its relationship to obesity and diabetes published between 2001 and 2016. They found about 60 studies that were fairly rigorous in their methodology.”
- “When the studies were led by independent researchers, they showed a clear link between soda consumption and obesity or metabolic disease. But notably, 26 of the studies reported no link between sugary soft drinks and poor health.”
- “What was different about the studies that found no connection to health problems? They were all carried out by researchers with financial ties to the beverage industry.”
- “If you look at just the independent studies, it becomes exceedingly clear that these drinks are associated with diabetes and obesity,” said Dean Schillinger, the lead author of the report and chief of the University of California, San Francisco, division of general internal medicine at San Francisco General Hospital. “Yet there are pockets of society that believe that they don’t cause these diseases because of the controversy that industry has created.”
- “While reviewing the literature, Dr. Schillinger said he noticed that industry-supported studies and independent studies tended to draw very different conclusions.”
- “The beverage association added that the new report itself was biased because its lead author, Dr. Schillinger, had been a “paid expert” for the City of San Francisco in the lawsuit over its soda warning labels. And it questioned the timing of the new report, saying its release a week before Election Day was an attempt to influence voters in California and Colorado, which have soda tax referendums on the ballot.”
Some additional tidbits from the Los Angeles Times:
- * “One hundred percent. That is the probability that a published study that finds no link between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and poorer metabolic health was underwritten by the makers of sugar-sweetened beverages, or authored by researchers with financial ties to that industry.”
- “Compare that figure with 2.9%. Among published studies that found that sugary beverage consumption is linked to higher rates of obesity and diabetes, fewer than 3% were underwritten by the sugar-sweetened beverage industry or authored by researchers who receive money from them.”
- “This industry,” [the study authors] wrote, referring to companies that market sugar-sweetened beverages, “seems to be manipulating contemporary scientific processes to create controversy and advance their business interests at the expense of the public’s health.”
- “It’s way too simple to say that companies buy the results they want,” New York University food researcher Marion Nestle said Monday. But, she added, “there is something about funding that leads — almost certainly unconsciously and unwittingly — to skewing studies to get the desired results. This is not hard to do.”