The Funding Effect: the Influence of Industry Funding on the Reliability of Scientific Data

Source: Pixabay.

In modern history, and in particular since the rise of neoliberal politics, the presence of corporations has certainly grown a lot larger. Perhaps it’s also just the fact that I’m starting to notice them now as I’m getting older, but they have become an increasing source of angst for myself, and certainly a lot of of other people in the UK if the recent support for Jeremy Corbyn is anything to go by. It’s no secret that a lot of them avoid paying their fair share of taxes, which in turn leads to social injustices that are concentrated on the poorer parts of society. Given that these entities exist to generate profit, can the way they funnel money into Research and Development be trusted?

The Funding Effect

Every day people are discovering new things through research and helping the human race to move forward. At the same time, most of this research – at least in the Netherlands –  is actually funded by private organisations, even in university environments. Does this really affect the results? You’d be naive to think otherwise. The phenomenon even has a name: the Funding Effect. This is the correlation between the results of a study, and the results the group funding the study desire. One study found that “the odds ratio of a favorable versus unfavorable conclusion was 7.61, comparing articles with all industry funding to no industry funding”. Yes, I checked, and there were no conflicts of interest with this study, though I must omit the wink face for fear of appearing unprofessional.  

Case studies

Sometimes the funding behind a study isn’t even subtle, it just goes unnoticed because no one really checks it or bothers talking about it. This of course I understand: not everyone has the time to check every single fact they come across and it seems unreasonable to think that trusted organisations would deliberately mislead the public. At the same time, it also seems unreasonable to still have guns in the USA despite there being so many school shootings, and here we are. Let’s take a specific example. The Tri-Lamb group is a collaborative venture between the Sheepmeat Council of Australia (SMCA), Beef + Lamb New Zealand and the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI). They invest both “time and resources” to achieve their stated goal of growing the sale of lamb for all three nations, primarily by increasing lamb consumption in the US.

The same Tri-Lamb group donated $20,000 to the American Dietetic Association (ADA) (who are now The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) – who claim to be devoted to improving the health of the nation – to produce a fact sheet titled “Lamb: The Essence of Nutrient Rich Flavour”, which they themselves helped to write. The ADA then promoted this through their website and journal. Some other examples are “Cocoa and Chocolate: Sweet News” sponsored by the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition; “Eggs: A Good Choice for Moms-to-Be” sponsored by the Egg Nutrition Center; and “The Benefits of Chewing Gum” sponsored by the Wrigley Science Institute. 

The norms of the scientific community

According to Merton, there are four norms by which the scientific community abides. These are universalism, communalism (not to be confused with communism), organised scepticism and disinterestedness. The first 3 basically say that data should be judged on its merits as opposed to the person, all scientific data should be shared and all science should be criticised before being accepted. Disinterestedness means that science should be removed from society, so that it can’t be biased in any way. However in a time when companies can donate $20,000 to advertise their products in a well known and supposedly unbiased journal, this norm is clearly being violated, and blatantly so. 

Regardless of what is happening, the scientific community still lives by and believes in these norms in the 21st century and corporations have taken advantage of this in order to further their interests and increase their profits, sometimes to the detriment of human health. Though to be fair, it is likely that this bias is not always directly from the corporation. For example, the pressure to publish could cause a scientist to design an experiment in a certain way, to yield certain results or work in a sloppy manner. At the end of the day, it is still a problem which favours short term profit over long term developments. 

The next steps

As a member of the public, there are ways to avoid being a victim to this kind of deception. The most obvious would be research everything you believe to be a fact: Do I need to drink cow’s milk to have strong bones? Is it better to use a paper bag at the supermarket? Are theses pills actually fixing the problem? In a lot of cases, you will likely find that what you believed was true, and in a lot you will find what you believed to be false. By checking the funding behind a study, people can avoid being misled by conflicts of interest, though it would also help if more scientists were willing to speak up about it. The bottom line is that it’s about time we took science back into the hands of the public and out of the pockets of the corporations, or, as my main man Jezza would say: “for the many, not the few”.

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.