Monthly Archives: September 2016

Does academic integrity exist?


There is yet more evidence of the way in which big business has financed academic research with the sole purpose of shaping the debate about the healthiness or otherwise of various products.

An article in the New York Times reports on research which argues that “the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead.”

It cites internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published in JAMA internal Medicine.

They suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

While it is true, as one of those quoted in the article says, that academic conflict-of-interest rules have changed significantly since the 1960s, this article is still a salutary warning about the way in which industry operates.

It would be naive to assume that industrial lobbyists have not adjusted their lobbying tactics and support of research to take account of modern media scrutiny.

They may not hand over used dollar bills as appears to be the case of the sugar industry in the 1960s, but through sponsorship of academic institutions, there is at least the possibility that they can influence research.

I have tried to highlight a number of occasions where a potential conflict of interest occurs – though I lack the scientific expertise to judge research, I believe that the more information we know about commercial, the better equipped we are to decide whether to take academic research at face value.

This includes the debate about statins

And also the wider commercial and funding links of academics.

I doubt if it will ever be possible track the extent of the influence of the drug, sugar and salt industries. They have the resources and the expertise to keep one step ahead of those who try to monitor and expose them, even when it is done by someone as effective as for example Joanna Blythman.

They have more opportunities to publicise their findings. Ever more articles in newspapers and items on radio and television are based on academic research – one issue of the Daily Mail had at least seven articles based on academic studies.

University PR departments, desperate for the headlines that will attract students, are ever more ready to process the research into marketable stories.

And we should also be careful when we read research findings we agree with. It is human nature to be more trusting of findings that support our beliefs – so perhaps I should now check the interests of the JAMA article!!

So, don’t trust anything written by an academic until you have checked on line to see the commercial and funding interests of the lead authors. We can no longer take any academic’s integrity for granted.


The “independence” of Sir Rory Collins

Just a brief addition to my blog on the credibility of Sir Rory Collins from the Clinical Trial Service Unit at the University of Oxford in the statins debate. He was the lead author of research that suggested statins are safe and effective.

I lack the skills to enter the medical debate but I did suggest that we should make ourselves better informed about Sir Rory by googling the relevant information about him.

I am always interested in the lead figures in any inquiry and what their external links may be – particularly on issues where opinion is still ferociously divided.

It did not take long for questions to be raised about Sir Rory’s connections with the drug industry.

His response was that “we get funding from the pharmaceutical industry  to do research which is run independently through Oxford University. We hold the data, we analyse the data, we interpret the data.”

Now, I have warned a number of times in my blogs on the way cases are presented of the need to be careful when anyone claims their research is independent.

There may be examples where funded research reaches conclusions that do not support the case of the funders and that these conclusions are presented energetically to the press and public.

But I doubt if there are many. And I am always suspicious about anyone funded by organisations with an interest who keeps insisting that the research is “independent.”

The principle is simple. Research of any kind, whether or not it is credible,  should not be described as “independent” if it is financed by someone with a commercial interest.












Can we trust Sir Rory Collins on statins?


The results of research that suggested statins are safe and effective are being given extensive coverage today in the print and broadcast media

And Professor Rory Collins from the Clinical Trial Service Unit at the University of Oxford was quoted and interviewed about the research.

Now it is not for me to even dip a toe into the debate on the relative merits of the different piece of research into the subject. I have no medical knowledge and no close contacts with anyone using the drug.

But I am always interested in the lead figures in any inquiry and what their external links may be – particularly where opinion is still ferociously divided.

And in the last year or so i have written about the links that academics have with outside commercial organisations. Here are a couple of examples.

Academics will always insist that they preserve academic integrity and supporters of the sponsors will complain that sceptics should address the message rather than the funding of the messenger.

It is not for me to judge this.

But I also think it is wise to dig deeper and ask about the interests of all those responsible for major research. Then at least we are informed about the external interests of the leading protagonists.

So it is worth googling in “Sir Rory Collins drug industry links.”

The results are interesting. Some clearly distrust Sir Rory because he runs a unit called the Clinical Trials Service Unit at Oxford, which has received nearly £300m ($500m) in funding from pharmaceutical companies over the years.


But Sir Rory’s supporters defend his economic independence and say that he is not directly funded by the industry.

As I say I don’t have expertise to enter this debate at any level.

All I would say is that it is yet more evidence of the need to look behind the headlines when important “independent” research is published.

It is then up to us to decide whether their outside interests harm their freedom of thought to the extent that we question the credibility of their findings.

Above all we need to remain sceptical.

How Smart is Tim being?

Invariably I find myself examining the way in which large organisations seek to deceive us by using evasive and misleading language.

But there are occasions when senior executives speak directly and with clarity – and that, not least because it is so rare, can be just as revealing.

And it is particularly interesting when the senior figures of one organisation change the approach from the former to the latter.

Take what has happened this week at the Southern Health Authority when its chairman was questioned on the BBC about the decision to give a new job to the organisation’s chief executive Katrina Percy.

Ms Percy had been under pressure to resign since the publication of a highly critical report last December on Southern Health’s failure to investigate hundreds of death.

Initially Southern Health resorted to a long and evasive statement in which its lawyers and PR department used every trick in the book to evade responsibility. I highlighted this at the time –

Eventually the trust’s chairman was replaced but, despite robust criticism from relatives of those who died and politicians, Ms Percy remained in her job until last week; then she was moved to a new £240,000 a year job which had been specifically created for her.

What is particularly interesting is the way Smart, who took over as chair four months ago, responded to questions on Ms Percy’s new job.

And I should say here that Smart has worked in senior positions in the public and private sector for many years so knows what he is doing when he appears before a television camera – and he also many lawyers and PR executives to provide him with evasive answers to every possible question.

Look at this exchange with a BBC interviewer.

  1. Did the new job exist before Katrina (Percy) took it?

Smart. The work needed to be done.

  1. That is not a yes or no. Did the new job exist before Katrina took it?

Smart. No

  1. Did you advertise that job so other people could apply?

Smart. No

  1. Was Katrina the only candidate?

Smart. She is uniquely qualified for it.

  1. Was she the only candidate?

Smart. Yes

  1. To many people that is not the case. The case is that over the next few months the work that we have asked Karina to do needed to be done in any event.


There is enough corporate evasion in some of these answers to demonstrate that he had been well rehearsed by his minders.

These answers include phrases such as “the work needed to be done” and also saying that Percy was “uniquely qualified.” The latter remark is meaningless as the job was not advertised – you only find out if someone is uniquely qualified by testing them against other candidates.

But most interesting is the way he only went through the motions of corporate evasion and gave direct answers after only the slightest pressure.

Those of us who have listened to politicians and business leaders answer difficult questions over the years know that even the clearest answer is submerged in enough verbiage to disguise its true intent.

It may be that Smart has decided on a new strategy of openness – probably not. Or that he panicked and blundered – unlikely.

Or it could be that his direct answers are designed reflect his unhappiness at what has been done. His intervention has certainly ensured that Ms Percy will be under much greater pressure that before he gave the interview.

So it is at least worth a sporting bet that there may have been a division of opinion about whether to give Ms Percy her new job.

And there may be some interesting revelations to come about this decision was eventually taken.