Corporate = Conflict?

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Everyone’s doing it — newspapers, magazines, medical journals. We even do it frequently here at Diabetes Self-Management: mention when a study receives corporate funding that might lead to the appearance of a conflict of interest. But a new essay by a prominent science columnist suggests that maybe we shouldn’t.

Writing in The New York Times, John Tierney questions whether corporate funding leads to any more bias in research than other sources of funding — government agencies, nonprofit foundations, or committees within a study’s affiliated university or research institution. He suggests that this bias against corporate funding exists in part out of “laziness,” since it is easier to find corporate connections than to explore many other potential sources of bias.

One policy that Tierney singles out for criticism is a rule put in place by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2005 requiring that at least one author of every study not be a recipient of corporate grants for that study. While this may look good on paper, he writes, in real life it means that researchers are insulted by being required to have a “chaperone” who does not actively conduct the research but who looks at the data and signs off on it. As further ammunition, Tierney cites a study that found corporate-funded studies to have higher standards than studies with no corporate funding.

But is he right? One possible reason for “higher standards” in corporate-funded research may be that companies fund studies they expect to immediately yield information on their product or a competitor’s product (such as with pharmaceutical companies), rather than funding exploration-oriented research that may have looser standards because it is not meant to lead to real-world recommendations right away. And is asking an outside researcher to look at a study’s procedures and data an altogether bad idea?

What do you think — is the profit motive inherent to corporate funding different from other potential sources of bias? Should journalists and medical journals focus on exposing other potential biases, as well? Is a corporate grant for research removed enough that it should not be scrutinized like, say, presentations of drug companies to doctors? Is there a danger that stigmatizing corporate funding could lead to important potential research projects not being funded? Leave a comment below!

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