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21/10/2014

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Are vested interests a rough guide to research?

Things are more complicated, argues Tracey Brown.

Things are more complicated, argues Tracey Brown.

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Campaigners declared that sugar was ‘the new tobacco’ earlier this year.

This was rapidly followed by a bunch of exposés of diet and nutrition researchers who had received research funds or advisory stipends from food companies.

Vested interests, right? Which signal to us all – the public, commentators and policy makers – that we can’t trust what they say and that their research is not so credible.

‘Follow the money’

Vested interests can distort research in different ways, from directly setting up research questions that are biased towards a particular outcome, to selecting only certain results for publication, to the more subtle influences on what conclusions to emphasise.

Discussing this at the AAAS international conference this year, Mariette DiChristina, editor of Scientific American, reminded me that ‘follow the money’ is such a useful thing to teach our credulous kids, as they blithely consume information they find on the web for their dissertations without stopping to question its source.

I agree. A glance at my eldest’s ‘research’ into the effects of mining made me wince on all counts. But are vested interests really much of a guide to what, ultimately, we should believe?

No. And we should be communicating the caveats much more systematically whenever we talk about them.

Caveats

First, vested interests don’t tell us at all reliably what is dependable. Leaving aside the campaigners thumping people in the head with ‘it’s the new tobacco’ – which is a lazy ruse to bypass explaining anything about research into obesity or alcohol or sunbeds or whatever is the latest recipient of the label – people need to be reminded that the best research in the world could be that conducted by the least popular or most vested organisation, and vice versa: people ostensibly neutral sometimes get things terribly wrong.

Secondly, the many accusations about vested interests are not a reliable guide to where such interests are really at play – some create a lot more noise than others. It is a catch-all that takes no account of whether someone has an independently tenured post or a history of independent work and reputation to safeguard.

Look more closely at the accusation, we should warn people, and ask how significant the interest is and whether it really seems to be influencing anything. What if the researcher receives government funding? If the research field relates to a policy question then government too has a horse in the race. (Researchers in many fields complain that state funding has its fashions and favoured assumptions and that anything outside them is forced to seek private funding.)

And above all make this distinction: is the vested interest accusation the result of a careful critique of the research – which is how the bias in clinical trial publication has emerged - or are you being given the accusation in lieu of such a critique?

Leading people astray

Yes, interests of all kinds are a warning to look carefully, and the increased disclosure in journals and public appointments is essential, not least in helping to track potential biases.

But relying on a vested interest guide to research is going to lead people astray, and using it as shorthand to convince people in one direction or another about research findings is just as paternalistic as saying ‘don’t ask, trust me’. Ultimately it’s counterproductive.

To return to the discussion about sugar, regardless of the simplified questions policy makers have to ask, the complex, dynamic field of human diet research, and our knowledge about it, will benefit more from critical challenge between all specialists in nutrition, diet, behaviour, toxicology and hormones than from a simplistic campaign about researcher interests.

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Tracey Brown
Tracey Brown is the Director of Sense About Science.
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