Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Scientific Research: Fizzy Thinking

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Scientific Research: Fizzy Thinking

Article excerpt

Parents fret about the health of their kids, so it's nice when impartial folk come up with reassuring advice. Should I let the children drink that syrupy gloop they're demanding? Ask a qualified scientist. Some public servant out there will have studied the product in question and can give us an answer to trust.

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Except that very often we can't, because the public is not paying the scientists. As a consequence, the results may not be impartial. There are scientific papers on the health effects of soft drinks written by researchers who appear to be independent--they work in public universities, for example, rather than for drinks companies. Yet many of those researchers receive grants from drinks firms. And when industry-funded experiments are compared with ones that the public has paid for, the independence of the scientists looks less clear.

According to one recent survey, the first of its kind to look at the beverage industry, scientists are up to eight times more likely to reach positive conclusions about a drink when they have been funded by the beverage firm. In fact, in one study examined by the authors, they could not find a single industry experiment that concluded with bad news for the sponsors.

Equivalent experiments funded by non-industry sources resulted in more than a third having critical things to say about the drinks being studied.

Yet the corrupting influence of big business on scientific results has been documented in detail in the pharmaceuticals industry. We know that regulatory decisions about drugs are routinely undermined by the big companies. There is no conspiracy or fraud here, just a systematic distortion.

But as with the drinks studies, commercially funded drugs trials are more likely to reach positive conclusions. Corporate researchers are also more prone to exaggerating beneficial effects. …

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