Industry-Funded Studies and the Skewing of America

I stumbled across this interesting publication that’s dedicated to reporting on the “cheating” that goes on as our country moves to privatize more and more services

Tarbell uncovers how powerful people and companies use their influence to shape a system that works for them, not you. We highlight solutions to pressing problems.

This puts our lives in the hands of corporations whose “moral imperative” is to make money for their shareholders, while all other goals and concerns (like patient outcomes) exist only in service of this “prime directive”. 

Industry-Funded Studies and the Skewing of America | Tarbell – by David Hatch – Apr 2018

When manufacturers are responsible for testing the safety and efficacy of their goods, the incentives to deliver favorable results can be enormous, say critics.

The relationship is fraught with potential for conflicts of interest because researchers are often paid by—or work directly for—industry sponsors.

Tactics run the gamut from

  • masking or burying sponsorship to
  • selectively highlighting positive results to
  • omitting key data that might alter the outcome.

Industry funders are routinely accused of relying on flawed methodologies that deviate from standard scientific procedure.

Ghostwriting, a practice that is legal, but which detractors consider highly unethical, lets corporations influence or write ostensibly independent studies. Research that doesn’t satisfy a sponsor’s goals may never see the light of day.

History is littered with examples of industry-commissioned research that made claims now seen as unfathomable.

Newly surfaced documents reveal that in the 1960s, sugar industry studies minimized the health risks of the sweetener while hyping the hazards of fat.

The tobacco industry notoriously challenged and muddled research that linked smoking to cancer and other diseases, dismissing it as anecdotal evidence. Yet internal documents later revealed that Big Tobacco knew in the 1960s that smoking posed health risks.

drug companies sometimes strike agreements with authors to provide and analyze data and approve the final versions of studies.

This is outrageous. It’s like the student being allowed to change his answers on a test after the instructor has graded it.

researchers often aim to please their corporate benefactors. “They worry if they don’t evaluate the product in a way that satisfies the funder, they will not get another contract.”

Industry Fills Research Void

For the first time since World War II, the U.S. government share of basic research funding has dipped below 50 percent, Science magazine reported last year.

“The federal share, which topped 70 percent throughout the 1960s and ’70s, stood at 61 percent as recently as 2004 before falling below 50 percent in 2013.” As of 2015, government agencies accounted for 44 percent of the $86 billion devoted to this form of research.

That means less federal support for research that examines broader scientific issues and is not tethered to a particular product, industry or policy, Reed explained. Basic research is usually conducted by academics with no financial ties to corporate interests.

Instead, companies are funding applied research that seeks to solve immediate problems.

As federal funding wanes, government agencies rely heavily on industry-sponsored studies to make regulatory decisions.

This is a sad reality of research these days: only industry is willing to spend the money to research any medication, therapy, or technique.

Discussing the medical sector, Kassirer recalled that into the early 2000s, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and independent foundations conducted many clinical trials. “Somewhere along way the balance shifted,” he said, with drug makers now funding most drug testing.

The result is intense pressure to produce results that justify the introduction of new medications, Kassirer said. For some pharmaceutical giants, any fines and recalls after a lucrative drug has been on the market are a mere cost of doing business.

Again, if there’s enough money available, almost anything is possible.

Regulatory fines are supposed to affect and change the behavior of corporations, but if the corporation has money enough to pay them (from the profits of the medication they were selling) there’s no incentive for them to be honest.

He complained that U.S. regulatory agencies routinely accept studies held confidential by corporate sponsors.

When he seeks details from agencies on industry reports they’re using, they often decline comment, stating that the information is proprietary.

This is much worse than I thought.

How can regulatory agencies made decisions based simply on proprietary information they are not allowed to look at. Who knows if the data supposedly analyzed even exists.

Industry-backed studies are a form of currency in media and policy circles.

The steady stream of headline-grabbing findings is so constant that most people rarely stop to consider how the research came together, or who funded it.

Companies keep returning to the model—research, publish, media blitz—because it’s a proven, economical way to reach vast populations with an unfiltered message.

Some industry studies have all the trappings of rigorous science:

They were authored by leading academics in a particular field, subject to peer review and published in prestigious medical or scientific journals.

But others lack peer review and are published in lesser-known journals that may have looser standards. Or they are not published at all but simply released as fact by corporate PR departments.

Sponsors know that sound-bite-sized summaries of their key findings will ricochet across cyberspace as headlines, tweets, and Facebook posts. Incidentals, such as who financed the project and whether the researchers are truly independent, rarely receive attention.

Those characteristics, critics say, make the bulk of industry-funded studies nothing more than glorified advertising and marketing campaigns thinly veiled as scholarly work.

The coterie of analysts, academics, and consulting firms willing to lend their names and reputations to industry studies for the right price are essential to the corporate research ecosystem.

Industry-backed studies routinely stretch the truth, but the dubious conclusions of a December 2016 research paper on sugar consumption were too much for even a corporate sponsor to swallow.

An academic paper published by the Washington, DC-based International Life Sciences Institute, whose funders include Coca-Cola, Hershey, Red Bull, and other major food producers, minimized the importance of limiting sugar consumption.

The findings ran contrary to a wide body of scientific data that directly links sugar to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Defenders of industry studies argue that major corporations are often the only entities that can afford costly experiments, and that findings have contributed to life-saving medications, widely used technologies, and other breakthroughs.

The problem always seems to boil down to finances.

If the government is no longer funding as much research, scientists are forced to seek industry funding, which they can only get if they “find” the “correct” results.

According to a Nature article on the pluses of industry research, a 20-year review of research at nine University of California campuses and three national labs found that corporate-sponsored inventions are licensed more often than federally funded ones.

“If you cannot retain an independent scientific community to produce credible knowledge and protect it from corporate interests, we’re at a tremendous loss for a democratic society.

Five telltale signs that industry cash funded a study | Tarbell – by David Hatch – Apr 2018

It can be challenging for the average consumer to discern whether a study plastered across the news was funded by corporate interests, and whether the science is trustworthy, regardless of who paid for it.

The challenge is compounded by a hollowed-out news media that often lacks the time and resources to investigate every claim and social media post that runs light on details.

Look for these five telltale signs to spot industry research and decide whether you can trust it:

  1. No Disclosure: When critical details are missing or buried, such as who sponsored the research, be on guard. This is a sure sign that a report was funded by a company or industry that’s trying to hide or minimize its role.
  2. Effusive Praise: Gushing praise by companies and industry trade organizations or their supporters, which can include front groups, could indicate research was designed to serve a corporate agenda.
  3. Outrageous Claims: Be skeptical about any conclusions that seem to defy logic—or appear intended mostly to boost the image and market share of a particular product or company.
  4. External variables: Any research should always be viewed in a wider context. Perhaps there’s a motivating factor, such as an upcoming referendum that could tax or ban a product, a company recall, or impending regulation in Washington.
  5. Lack of Peer Review: The peer-review process involves evaluation of scholarly work by specialists in the same field. The most reputable scientific journals only accept peer-reviewed articles for publication. But as highlighted by this cautionary Center for Public Integrity article, peer review doesn’t always guarantee scientific rigor.

Big industries skewing science: What you can do

  • Learn to spot an industry-funded study. It’s not hard. You just need to ask some key questions, like, “Are the results too good to be true?” Find out more here.
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists offers the Disinformation Playbook, a site that tracks the myriad ways industry uses skewed studies to win policy battles and get potentially unsafe products to market. You can find out more about how to personally address the problem here.
  • If you are scientist, check out PubPeer, the site that encourages volunteer experts to review newly published studies for errors, omissions and conflicts of interest. Think of it as a crowd-sourced way to keep other scientists honest. Find out more about it here.
  • Another tool for scientists: The Center for Open Science. The project aims to put science on a free, open source platform to make scientific findings easily reproducible, verifiable and findable. Learn more about them here.
  • The Reproducibility Initiative is another effort to guarantee study findings through independent testing of key results. Find out more here.
  • If you’re wondering whether a medicine you take or a medical device in your body has caused harm to other individuals, the law firm of Wilson & Peterson operates Drugwatch.com. Ambulance chasing aside, it is a handy quick reference. Find out more here.

Funding Bias: The Hidden Danger Lurking in Industry Studies | Tarbell – by David Hatch – Apr 2018

When companies pay for research on their products and services, there is a strong incentive to rig the results in their favor, say critics. Variously called “sponsorship bias,” “funding effect,” or “funding bias,” the favoritism can be baked deep into the design or methodology.

The only way to know for sure if bias is at play is to thoroughly interview the authors to gauge whether there was prejudice in the methodology or data interpretation

Since extensive debriefs of researchers are usually not feasible, he recommends looking for clues that might indicate bias.

  • The structure of an experiment,
  • exclusion of certain data, and
  • interpretation of results are key areas to evaluate.

How can such bias be reduced or eliminated? Reed thinks more transparency would help. She’d like to see every academic journal and database require disclosure about researchers’ financial ties to funders and whether authors provided expert testimony on behalf of sponsors, she said. The federal database PubMed, which publishes scholarly papers and abstracts, already requires this information in conflict-of-interest statements.

Reed urges journals to go further by requiring companies to reveal any involvement in editing the manuscript.

That’s a polite way of saying the corporate sponsor is allowed to write the reports about their products.

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