05 September 2014

Research Sponsor Bias

Welcome back. For years in academia, I produced a monthly newsletter, expounding on our government-sponsored research program and related items. Being in the pre-email era, we mimeographed, stapled and mailed the newsletter to about 500 individuals across campus and in some 45 states and 15 countries.

I would occasionally invite guest editorials. Unwisely, I included one that was accurate but unfavorable to our government sponsor. On the bright side, it demonstrated our independence; on the dark side, our sponsor wasn’t thrilled. Fortunately, I escaped with a mild scolding from our agency representative and our grant unscathed. 

Industry’s increased share of funding for
research and development, 1953-2008.
The potential for sponsor-induced bias, particularly with industry-funded research, is well-known to researchers. Since you may be unaware of how pervasive the effects might be, I thought I’d highlight a recent study on the subject.

Potential Industry-Funded Research Bias

The study was conducted by collaborating investigators from the University of Navarra, Spain, the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbr├╝cke, and Spain’s Biomedical Research Centre in Physiopathology of Obesity and Nutrition (CIBERobn). The investigators examined 17 systematic reviews of published research on the same topic.

(A systematic review is pretty much what it sounds like--a comprehensive review of the literature published on a specific research question. While systematic reviews are very common in the health and medical fields, where their implementation is normally performed according to protocols that assiduously avoid bias, the reviews are done in numerous fields to document the status of research.)

As part of their publication process, six of the 17 reviews disclosed support from industry. Over 80% of the conclusions of those six reviews were favorable to industry. The other 11 reviews did not declare any support from industry. Over 80% of the conclusions of those 11 reviews were not particularly favorable to industry.

Take your pick, water or soda.
(multiple websites)
In case I’m being too abstract, the research question addressed by the 17 reviews was whether there is an association between consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain or obesity.

The six reviews in which a potential conflict of interest was disclosed (i.e., the reviews were supported by beverage and sugar industries) were five times more likely to present a conclusion of no positive association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain. Most of the 11 reviews that had no affiliation with industry argued that current evidence justified public health strategies that discourage the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. (Go ex-Mayor Bloomberg!)

Wrap Up 

Cigarette advertisement from
1970s. No, he just looks like me
 and, no, I don’t know the young
 woman. (multiple websites)
I love, honor and invest in industry, and I applaud industry’s sponsorship of research when structured to avoid possible bias. Likewise, I’m bothered when the same tactics the tobacco industry used are employed to deny the detrimental effects of sugary beverages, as has been documented in recent years in various research studies (examples appended).

Not to overdo the parallel, but having participated in examining climate trends when I was in academia 30 years ago, I’m even more bothered by the lobbying effort to deny climate change and its causes. I appreciate alternative arguments and conclusions if based on science, and I recognize that climate change is more of a political issue. Nevertheless, I think the deniers go too far when science is denigrated especially by uncomprehending media personalities and politicians.

Thanks for stopping by.


Recent study on potential industry-funded research bias in PLOS Medicine:
Example of earlier (2007) PLOS Medicine paper on the topic:
Special 2012 series of PLOS Medicine on the food industry’s influence in global health:
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report, 2014:
Union of Concerned Scientists 2012 report on industry’s influence on climate dialogue:

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