Conflicts of interest and experts

While as a matter of professionalism experts are supposed to be resistant to the impact of conflicting interests, as a matter of human nature that is often not how it works. Indeed, over the past two years this blog has had no problem finding materials for posts on COIs in various professions – including auditing (see also this post  and this one ),  financial services,  compensation consulting,  medicine,   journalism,   law (my own profession) and even dentistry – many of which detail the harmful impacts of such COIs.

Of course, the news is not always all bad.  Indeed, 2013 saw what was undeniably a positive development on this front – the announcement by the global pharma company GSK that it would stop marketing related payments to physicians. (Here is a compelling piece by a doctor about how deleterious pharma-physician COIs have been to the practice of medicine.)

But then there’s the other side of the issue which has, as of late, included:

–          This piece in the NY Times in late December on “how major players on Wall Street and elsewhere have been aggressive in underwriting and promoting academic work…[as] part of a sweeping campaign to beat back regulation and shape policies that affect the prices that people around the world pay for essentials like food, fuel and cotton.” While the academics receiving the industry support deny that their efforts are influenced by the financial backing they receive –  e.g., “I call ’em like I see ’em,” said one – the totality of knowledge about COIs suggests that that is not what happens in situations of this sort.

–          Another article on economists from a few months ago  in Deutsche Welle which reported   that “German, Austrian and Swiss economists agreed a year ago to a code of ethics aimed at achieving greater transparency and fairness in political consulting. But there is little sign of it today.”

–          Most recently, a story about a just-published study showing: “Scientists receiving research funding from big beverage firms such as Coke or Pepsi are five times more likely to conclude in review studies that there is no link between soft drinks and weight gain.”   This is a striking finding and – given the threat that obesity poses to public health – a somewhat alarming  one. (Here is more information about this study.)

One hopes that all the experts who seem to think that their expertise renders them immune from the corrupting forces of COIs would respect the expertise of the various social scientists and others who have actually studied the issue.

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