Is 'robust and transparent' research possible when industry and scientists collaborate?

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

Food Drink Europe launched this year its research principles for robust and transparent research collaboration between the food industry and scientists. Photo credit: iStock.com / Mare Kuliasz
Food Drink Europe launched this year its research principles for robust and transparent research collaboration between the food industry and scientists. Photo credit: iStock.com / Mare Kuliasz

Related tags: science, Scientific method, Food

The European food industry has published voluntary research principles to ensure robust and transparent science – but questions remain over how they will be put in place and enforced.

The principles, developed by industry group Food Drink Europe,  were discussed by scientists and consumer rights advocates at a press conference in Brussels last week.

Innovation in food science and technology is often the result of collaboration between industry and science and this is beneficial to both, said Ian MacDonald, professor of metabolic physiology at the University of Nottingham, who has worked with industry giants such as Mars.

After all, he said, publically-funded research cannot have an economic benefit – which is increasingly expected – if scientists have no ties with industry, and suggestions that a scientist who works with industry has no integrity because of such links are “frankly insulting”. 

Pressure to perform

But the pressure on scientists to find the ‘right’ results is often there.

unethical business, integrity, lobby Copyright - 5432action
Photo copyright: 5432action

MacDonald spoke of one food company that had finalised and published its marketing material for a product based on the expected positive outcome of a study - only to be hugely disappointed when the scientists failed to find a positive outcome.

Which is why separation of the source of funding and a project’s outcome is high on the list of Food Drink Europe’s (FDE) principles. 

Ilaria Passanari, head of food and health at European consumer rights organisation BEUC, echoed that any mistrust felt towards industry-funded research is grounded in past experience. ""Unfortunately, evidence shows that industry-sponsored research often favours the interest of the sponsor and in the pharmaceutical sector, industry-sponsored clinical trials tend to support those who want market access. I think the mistrust is linked to this," ​she said.

Meanwhile, this year it came to light that the US sugar industry interfered and influenced research​ looking at the role of sucrose in dental caries, with the result that public health policy in the 60s and 70s was skewed in its favour.

But for Clare Leonard, director of scientific affairs, regulatory affairs and nutrition at Mondelēz, the transparency guaranteed through the principles meant attention was focussed on the science, regardless of how it was used.

“The science itself should stand up to critique. If it is used for lobbying or for a health claim is irrelevant,”​ she said.

Transparency yes - but how?

However, a stumbling block for the experts, discussing the principles before FDE members and representatives of the food industry, was how exactly to achieve this transparency. FDE intends to achieve

keyhole man

transparency by publishing all research – regardless of results – in independent peer-reviewed journals.

But Hubert Deluyker, scientific advisor at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), warned that this is not as easy as it seems, with thousands of studies on pesticides alone coming out each year and the majority remaining unpublished – especially if the result is negative. “You trust the peer-review system a lot."

"What will you do if a journal refuses?”​ he asked FDE members later.

Could a solution lie in an open data system where scientists can publish their studies in an open access platform?

This would certainly be more accessible to consumers who cannot afford the expensive subscriptions to academic journals, said Passanari.

But MacDonald warned many scientists would feel threatened by an open data system. “In today’s data is tomorrow’s idea,” ​he said, adding it could also jeopardise a scientist’s career by freely publishing results rather than in prestigious journals.

Is relying on trust enough?

Another sticking point is the fact that, as they currently stand, the principles are not accompanied by any kind of evaluation process, and it is unclear whether FDE intends to monitor adherence.

Isidoros Karatzas, head of the ethics and research integrity sector at the EU directorate general for research, DG RTD, said the code’s success was dependent on spreading the word not just among scientists but within a company – “especially in this industry where the line between research, product and market is more direct than it can maybe be in academia”.

hailer-communication

For him, the solution to adherence lay in good communication. “Put the code into the troops [in a company]. The only codes that work are the ones that are shared and this comes from business studies and ethics studies. If there is co-ownership of the principles, it empowers people to respect the values.”

But according to MacDonald this problem exists throughout the scientific community where the systems are theoretically in place but checks rarely occur. “I fully support the principles, but for implementation and checking? I’ve no idea. You rely on trust,” ​he said.

Whether that is enough remains to be seen, but despite these holes, the speakers agreed that the principles form a solid basis for striving towards ethical conduct between science and industry.

“It’s a first step and the longest trip starts with a first step. It’s more daring than I would have thought before reading the document,” ​said Karatzas.

To read the research principles in full click here​.

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