Conflict of Interest at Harvard and the Need for Deterrence

We are pleased to have this guest post from Jameson W. Doig, Visiting Research Professor of Government, Dartmouth College  and Professor Emeritus at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

On September 12, the Journal of the American Medical Association carried an important story regarding conflict-of-interest in research carried out at Harvard.  In the 1960s, the chairman of Harvard’s Nutrition Department and two of his researchers were given $50,000 (in today’s dollars) to provide a critical review of studies that had identified Sugar as a significant factor in coronary heart disease. Recently discovered files indicate that the Harvard researchers were in close contact with the Sugar Research Foundation, and that they shaped their analysis so it raised doubts about research studies that identified sugar as a causal factor (they suggested that instead “fat” had a key role in causing heart disease). On reviewing a draft, a SRF official said he was pleased with the results. The role of the SRF in financing and partially guiding the study was not revealed in the researchers’ report, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967.

The study was completed in 1967 and all three researchers have now died. Even so, the case raises important issues in the field of deterrence. In my view, Harvard should review the evidence described in the JAMA article, and if the integrity of the researchers’ work was compromised significantly by their contacts with the sugar industry, the University should consider public action — formally announcing the negative findings, perhaps removing any Harvard awards given to the three, etc. Action of this kind should help to deter other researchers who may be tempted to carry out research shaped to benefit the funder. (If the allegations in the article are incorrect, the Harvard review should publicly challenge the JAMA implication of unprofessional faculty behavior.)

Although professional rules now ask researchers to reveal their funding sources, it is reasonable to expect that some will not fully comply. More important, revealing funding sources may not be a sufficient deterrent, when large sums to finance research and complex studies are involved. For example, Coca-Cola has recently funded studies on the links between sugary drinks and obesity; and the National Confectioners Association has financed and been actively involved in studies that raise doubts that eating candy is a factor in child obesity. The candy studies were carried out by researchers at two universities, in collaboration with an industry consultant. To protect the reputation of their own institutions, and to improve the quality of research said to benefit the public, university officials should actively monitor apparent conflicts of interest and take punitive action when appropriate.

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