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.


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