The Washington Post has an interesting story today that's bound to get some play elsewhere. It's an article by David Michaels, an author and epidemiologist who teaches environmental health policy at the George Washington University School of Public Health, on the link between research findings and who is doing the funding. The headline sums it up: "It's Not the Answers That Are Biased, It's the Questions: If Two Similar Studies Completely Disagree, Look at How the Funders Framed the Issue." Michaels leads into the topic by looking at the debate about bisphenol A safety:
One of the eyebrow-raising statistics about the BPA studies is the stark divergence in results, depending on who funded them. More than 90 percent of the 100-plus government-funded studies performed by independent scientists found health effects from low doses of BPA, while none of the fewer than two dozen chemical-industry-funded studies did. This striking difference in studies isn't unique to BPA. When a scientist is hired by a firm with a financial interest in the outcome, the likelihood that the result of that study will be favorable to that firm is dramatically increased. This close correlation between the results desired by a study's funders and those reported by the researchers is known in the scientific literature as the "funding effect." Having a financial stake in the outcome changes the way even the most respected scientists approach their research. Scientists make many decisions about the doses, exposure methods and disease definitions they use in their experiments, and each decision affects the result.Michaels doesn't charge that industry-funded studies (or non-industry funded studies, for that matter) are junk. Instead, he explores why the results are so different, and he offers a solution:
It has become clear to medical editors that the problem is in the funding itself. As long as sponsors of a study have a stake in the conclusions, these conclusions are inevitably suspect, no matter how distinguished the scientist. The answer is de-linking sponsorship and research. One model is the Health Effects Institute, a research group set up by the Environmental Protection Agency and manufacturers. HEI has an independent governing structure; its first director was Archibald Cox, who famously refused to participate in President Richard Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" meant to help cover up the Watergate scandal. HEI conducts studies paid for by corporations, but its researchers are sufficiently insulated from the sponsors that their results are credible.Interesting idea. Does it have a chance to succeed?