The New York Times recently reported that Coca-Cola is funding a group of academics whose scientific research emphasizes that exercise, not diet, is key to addressing obesity. This focus on exercise shifts attention away from the link between the calories in Coke’s drinks and obesity and also contradicts the prevailing scientific opinion, the Times reports. It also happens to support the political and economic agenda of Coke.
Scandalous? Sure. But is it news?
Journalists and public interest groups have for decades documented and described this kind of conflict of interest among public university researchers—and the routine bias this engenders. To me, the real story is the way that the scientific community—universities, science journals and scientific societies—has buried its head in the sand on this issue, allowing conflicts of interest to persist and even flourish, as corporate funders seem to play ever-larger roles in science.
As the Times’ article correctly notes, Coke’s science campaign echoes the efforts of the tobacco industry, which spent decades engaging friendly scientists to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking. This is the same playbook used by the food industry, including biotechnology companies like Monsanto, which also has a very strong presence on university campuses.
Just a couple of weeks ago, it became public that one of academia’s leading GMO cheerleaders, University of Florida’s Kevin Folta, who has long and passionately denied having financial ties to the biotech industry, was awarded $25,000 from Monsanto for “research and outreach projects,” among other conflicts of interest.
That’s par for the course. Academics often don’t disclose conflicts of interest because they are not required to and, no doubt, because they realize that such disclosures will hurt their scientific credibility. Like Folta, the Coca-Cola-funded obesity researchers, who also work for public universities, did not publicly disclose their receiving research funding from Coke until challenged by an independent researcher.
It seems to me that public university scientists should be required by law to disclose all conflicts of interest on university websites. Such disclosures would go a long ways toward starting a bigger conversation about the more fundamental question of whether companies with a stake in the outcome should fund scientific research at public institutions. Should Coca-Cola should be allowed to fund obesity research at public universities given its economic interests in the results?
Public disclosures of conflicts of interests are commonsense, and they wouldn’t be difficult to implement. In fact, there is already a solid model in place. Under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), medical doctors are now required to disclose conflicts of interests, including financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies, which could bias their medical opinions. There’s even a publicly available database for patients to look up their doctors.
This fall, Food & Water Watch is launching a campaign to work with students to document corporate influence on university campuses, including research grants that academics receive. This effort should help start a conversation that is long overdue about the outsize role that corporate interests have in academia and the biasing impacts this is having on science.
Want to learn more about corporate agribusiness’s enormous role on university campuses and in scientific research? Check out Public Research, Private Gain and Corporate Control in Animal Science Research.