Scientists are often bought

Governments pay scientists to produce results that suit their public policy agendas; corporations must then commission defensive studies.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post

cokeBottlingCan scientists be bought to produce studies that serve their corporate masters? The New York Times evidently thinks so, as it described in an article this week.

“Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, is backing a new ‘science-based’ solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories,” began the article.

“The beverage giant has teamed up with influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media. To help the scientists get the word out, Coke has provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.”

Coca-Cola-funded research not only serves its own interests; it serves the public interest

The article, headlined “Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets,” describes how companies – it also listed Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Hershey’s – can manipulate public opinion in ways “reminiscent of tactics used by the tobacco industry, which enlisted experts to become ‘merchants of doubt’ about the health hazards of smoking.”

The New York Times is right, of course, that scientists can be bought. Scientists – as with experts in any field –  know that their continued funding depends on producing results that further their funders’ agendas. Coca-Cola would be doing its shareholders a disservice if it funded research that it expected would harm its bottom line.

But the Times is wrong in deploring Coke’s resort to science for its advocacy. Coca-Cola-funded research not only serves its own interests; it serves the public interest, by countering the politically correct, conventional wisdom on obesity backed by governments and their agencies, which have agendas of their own. If scientists at Global Energy Balance Network are merely running a multi-million-dollar “front group” designed to produce fraudulent results for the soda pop industry, as alleged in the Times article, the far more lavishly funded government-backed scientists will have all the means necessary to disprove their case. With fully informed, science-based decision-making the presumed goal of public policy, why discourage competing perspectives from adding to the store of knowledge on the rise of obesity, a phenomenon about which little is known?

Yet governments, foundations and others who toe the government line do discourage research that might yield unwanted results. The scientists who formed the Global Energy Balance Network only turned to Coca-Cola in pursuit of their personal research priorities when funding failed to materialize from conventional sources. These scientists –  leaders in their field – have had no trouble overseeing research that furthers government policy; their difficulty comes when they decide to pursue research that is ideologically incorrect.

Take the president of the Global Energy Balance Network, University of Colorado School of Medicine Professor James O. Hill. He’s a past chair of the National Institute of Health Nutrition Study Section, a past chair of the World Health Organization Consultation on Obesity and a past president of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity. Hill was also a member of the Expert Panel on Obesity of the National Institutes of Health that developed U.S guidelines for the treatment and prevention of obesity, is considered “a leader in the fight against the global obesity epidemic” by the American Society for Nutrition, is Director of the Center for Human Nutrition and is co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry, the largest prospective investigation of long-term successful weight loss maintenance.

By any measure, Hill is a scientist whose track record merits support. Had he chosen to pursue the government’s research priorities –  i.e., had he chosen to be bought by government –  he would have received no end of funding. His difficulty stemmed from his decision to set his own research priorities, rather than have them be set by others.

In this Hill is unusual. Most scientists, less capable and less able to attract funds, are bought by government, which directly or indirectly controls the overwhelming majority of scientific research. In the case of global warming, for decades one of the most heavily researched scientific issues, virtually no funding is available for dissenting views. So too in those areas of medical science subject to political correctness. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

To be clear, corrupting scientists by pre-determining their results in justification of public policy is untoward. Governments should stop doing it. Corporations would then have no need to fund counter research in self-defense.

Lawrence Solomon is research director of Toronto-based Consumer Policy Institute. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .

2 thoughts on “Scientists are often bought

  1. I don’t know if it was ever different but in my experience as a litigation lawyer over the last 40+ years, in environmental cases as in many others, there is no such animal as a totally objective scientist. On both sides of environmental debates in court or environmental assessment hearings the lawyer advocates are supported by advocates with Phds in science. The latter are presented as expert witnesses to assist the tribunal, but their positions are clearly attributable to who is paying them.

    It should come as no surprise that whether the subject is the issue of global warming and its causes or obesity and diet we find scientist-advocates. Science for sale is a popular commodity, with elected politicians being the largest purchasers.

    The myth being supported by the New York Times article is that objective research is being corrupted by corporations paying scientists to contradict the truth about obesity. If we accept the inevitability that there is no single and immutable truth, last decade’s research will be contradicted by this decade’s, which will be contradicted by next decade’s. And life goes on.

  2. Careful – beware a false equivalency about the motives of government health agencies versus private industry. There is strong scientific evidence of a causal (not merely correlative) link between increased processed and sugary foods and epidemic increases in obesity and metabolic syndrome. Unlike most reputable nutrition scientists, Hill has jumped every time food industry marketers dangled millions of dollars – sums he never could have received from university or government – and he’s kept drumming the “calorie in calorie out” mantra long after its been debunked. Food manufacturers can do what Detroit did, bury their heads in the sand for decades, and suffer Detroit’s fate. OR, they can be part of a food production about face that reengages farmers, revitalizes soil, reduces pesticides, and restores Americas health. They’ll need to diversify to maintain profits for sure. Get on the right side of this battle now, coca cola. You will have the thanks of a grateful nation.

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