Is research funded by brands believable?

8:02 AM, 27 April 2016

Research funded by brandsIt seems like no matter what we research, a common theme we encounter is contradiction.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times .... Yet, how is this possible? Surely, only one of these realities would be valid and supported by data.


How can research results differ so distinctly?

We have seen an explosion of what can only be termed: 'research as news'.

There is little doubt that research has become a useful source for 24/7 news media. As examples, look at the frequency of stories reporting that consumption of wine or chocolate is good for you. Then compare how many stories report the opposite. A great deal of research is being published with minimal analysis of the data itself. Leaving the public confused and cynical.

And we aren't helped by the increasing tendencies for researchers and academics to not only be published, but also to be publicised; and, in the case of public health, an increase in agenda-based research to support a particular narrative, which feeds into the news appetite.

Some previously respected academic journals have become politicised with specific agendas. In that context, it is hardly surprising that businesses have also become research funders on social and health issues, creating something of an academic backlash -- "they would say that".


Can brand funded research be objective?

Take, for example, a recent study conducted by British anthropologist Dr. Anne Fox for Lion in which she investigated the relationship between alcohol and violent behaviour. Findings suggested alcohol did not play a primary role in violent behaviours, but rather "personality" dictated violent behaviour.

Auckland University researcher Nicki Jackson and professor Kypros Kypri from the University of Newcastle immediately criticised the study as being "completely flawed" and stated that the alcohol industry "shouldn't be informing policy on alcohol." According to Jackson, "It's just another attempt by the alcohol industry to try and create confusion and get in the way of good positive change in alcohol-related harm".

The reality is that whenever an industry foots the bill for a piece of research, which is then made publicly available, it raises the question of whether the findings can be trusted. In truth, a scientist's work must stand up to the scrutiny of the scientific community. If it does, then it is reliable and trustworthy, no matter what entity pays for the research. Of course, funding disclosure and any other potential sources of bias should always be transparent so that readers can make their own assessments of a paper's credibility.

Industry has an important role to play in research. It is important to note for example, that much scientific research on nutrition and food safety is funded privately, by industry or other private sector organizations. The public would not be well served, and innovations and new discoveries would rapidly decline if such research were disregarded or completely eliminated.

At the same time, research on social issues, such as Fox's paper, adds to the discourse. Without its like we risk a single narrative on public policy.


Media Coverage

According to Rob Bree, the General Manager of the Research Association of New Zealand, "the client, no matter how altruistic their aims, has a specific objective when they commission research. As receivers of research outputs, the media, the public and other stakeholders need to apply a degree of intelligence to any research report to understand what the research is really saying".

However, this rule doesn't only apply to research commissioned by brands; it applies equally to any research in the public domain.

The nature of media is such that it is left to those consuming the media to consider the sources of research and investigating claims made by news stories -- to determine the value of claims made.

Does industry have a legitimate role to fund research on public health issues? All feedback, queries and opinions are welcomed to lindsay@anza.co.nz

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