Potential conflicts of interest need to be managed, not eliminated

You may remember recently when I discussed a study that showed that “telling people to eat more fruits and vegetables” didn’t work. Friend of the blog Brad Flansbaum then pointed me to this, by Marion Nestle:

My immediate question: who paid for this study?

Here’s the conflict of interest statement.


Note the presence of companies making processed foods whose sales would decline if people ate more F&V.

A coincidence?  I don’t think so, alas.

Here’s the thing. This is exactly what we want from researchers: open, transparent, declarations of potential conflicts of interest. We shouldn’t demonize those who do what we ask. And everyone who gets a grant or a donation isn’t a bad scientist.

Getting grant funding is hard. I wish unbiased organizations were willing to fund all research, but that’s not the case. I know people with industry funding whose integrity is nearly unimpeachable. I also know lots of people with funding from government sources who are ridiculously conflicted in an academic sense.

We need to judge science on the methodology. In this case, this was a systematic review. Go read the paper. Judge for yourself whether they did a good job or not. But in the same way that I refuse to “believe” just anyone without due diligence, I don’t dismiss them without doing it either.

Potential conflicts of interest should be declared so that we can decide for ourselves if they matter. But too many people (1) only care about financial ones, when other ones are equally problematic*, and (2) think that our goal should be no conflicts of interest at all. The latter is nearly unachievable. Potential conflicts of interest need to be made public and managed, not eliminated, and the above is a step in the right direction.


*For instance, I know a lot of people so invested in their research and results that they refuse to engage with work that refutes it. It’s an academic conflict of interest. My recent readings make me wonder if these conflicts aren’t just as pervasive in nutrition science.

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