Health Hoaxes, Revisited
Several readers took me to task for last Monday's posting about the American Council on Science and Health's list of what the group called the top 10 health "hoaxes" of 2008. Though the blog focused on the fact that we in the media sometimes have insufficient regard for the quality of the science underlying the studies we report on, some of you pointed out that ACSH's refusal to name its funding sources warranted closer attention.
As readers noted, ACSH has historically accepted funds from corporate sources who potentially stand to benefit from some of the organization's findings. Indeed, ACSH's 1985 annual report lists dozens of food, chemical, pharmaceutical and petroleum-industry sources that donated to the group.
According to ACSH's Web site, Elizabeth Whelan says the group, when founded in 1978, initially took funds from foundations only and for its early years of operation made its donor list public. After a few years, ACSH began accepting corporate donations and, after a time, stopped sharing its donor list with the public. Here's its current statement regarding funding:
ACSH accepts unrestricted grants on the condition that it is solely responsible for the conduct of its research and the dissemination of its work to the public. The organization does not perform proprietary research, nor does it accept support from individual corporations for specific research projects.
ACSH founder and president Elizabeth Whelan notes on the Web site that whether they disclose their funding sources or not, everyone assumes the group's shilling for corporations.
That sounds like a cop-out. Transparency can only lend credibility to the group and its work.
But here's the thing: Even when funding sources are clearly made public, it's hard to measure the extent to which those funders influence scientific research, the way it's designed and the way it's presented. The issue has risen to the surface recently in many quarters: Medical journals have tightened their requirements for researchers' reporting potential conflicts of interest. The National Institutes of Health now limits the percentage of stock from a company with which a researcher has a business relationship that that researcher's 401(k) plan can include. And Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has mounted an aggressive campaign to ferret out undisclosed financial relationships between makers of drugs and medical devices and researchers -- many of them top names working at major universities.
Every funder -- be it a pro-environment foundation or a for-profit business -- comes to the table with a point of view. Could it be that we tend to be more suspicious when that point of view conflicts with our own?
I'm neither pro-ACSH nor anti-ACSH. But the group's stances, whether they're disputing the findings of a study regarding Bisphenol-A in our bodies or arguing against making the Gardasil vaccine mandatory (while still staunchly supporting the vaccine itself), take us into territory that many people have strong feelings about. Just take a look at the group's site, particularly the section devoted to health facts and fears.
The bottom line: Organizations that enter the public discourse on health-related research should disclose their funding sources, and we should all have the opportunity to consider whether those connections appear to influence the organizations' stances and comments. At the same time, we shouldn't necessarily discount those stances and comments solely on the basis of the funders that support them.
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