The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2018, The New York Times Company).
A number of recent news articles have brought renewed attention to financial conflicts of interest in medical science. Physicians and medical administrators had financial links to companies that went undeclared to medical journals even when they were writing on topics in which they clearly had monetary interests.
Most agree such lapses damage the medical and scientific community. But our focus on financial conflicts of interest should not lead us to ignore other conflicts that may be equally or even more important. Such biases need not be explicit, like fraud.
“I believe a more worrisome source of research bias derives from the researchers seeking to fund and publish their work, and advance their academic careers,” said Dr. Jeffrey Flier, a former dean of Harvard Medical School who has written on this topic a number of times.
How might grant funding and career advancement — even the potential for fame — be biasing researchers? How might the desire to protect reputations affect the willingness to accept new information that reverses prior findings?
I’m a full professor at Indiana University School of Medicine. Perhaps the main reason I’ve been promoted to that rank is that I’ve been productivein obtaining large federal grants. Successfully completing each project, then getting that research published in high-profile journals, is what allows me to continue to get more funding.
A National Institutes of Health regulation sets a “significant financial interest” as any amount over $5,000. It’s not hard to imagine that being given thousands of dollars could influence your thinking about research or medicine. But let’s put things in perspective. Many scientists have been awarded millions of dollars in grant funding. This is incredibly valuable not only to them but also to their employers. Journals and grant funders like to see eye-catching work. It would be silly not to think that this might also subtly influence thinking and actions. In my own work, I do my best to remain conscious of these subtle forces and how they may operate, but it’s a continuing battle.
Getting positive results, or successfully completing projects, can sometimes feel like the only way to achieve success in research careers. Just as those drivers can lead people to publish those results, it can also nudge them not to publish null ones.
As a pediatrician, I’ve been acutely aware of concerns that relationships between formula companies and the American Academy of Pediatricsmight be influencing policies on feeding infants. But biases can occur even without direct financial contributions.
If an organization has spent decades recommending low-fat diets, it can be hard for that group to acknowledge the potential benefits of a low-carb diet (and vice versa). If a group has been pushing for very low-sodium diets for years, it can be hard for it to acknowledge that this might have been a waste of time, or even worse, bad advice.