Integrity in science is not an oxymoron

March 21, 2013

Jeff Nedelman

It has become popular among those who disagree with federal public health and safety policies to denigrate the science that forms the foundation for action by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to name just a few. Indeed, opponents not only dismiss the research but also launch personal attacks asserting with no proof that their personal opponents have been "bought" by "Big Food," "Big Pharma," or "Big [fill in the descriptor]." Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth.

The argument goes that the only "pure" research is that which the federal government or charitable trusts fund, as if they did not have bias or an enlightened self-interest in publishing material that supports their point of view or mission statements.

What is important for most people to understand is that we have a system of checks and balances in place to ensure the scientific research is done right and to expose conflicts of interest. The cornerstone of this process is an Institutional Review Board (IRB).

An IRB, also known as an independent ethics committee, is a committee that has been formally designated to approve, monitor, and review biomedical and behavioral research involving humans. For example, IRBs are responsible for critical oversight functions for research conducted that are scientific, ethical, and regulatory.

For consumers this means that, whether it is Harvard School of Public Health, the University of North Carolina "“ Chapel Hill, the University of Vermont or any other academic center of research, principal investigators must submit their protocols to their colleagues for prior approval, to get the science done right, to expose possible conflicts. Perhaps three years after an IRB wins approved the research may appear, after editing, in a peer-reviewed journal. However, only a small number of papers make it into print, compared to the vast number of studies, often involving rats, small numbers of people and a great deal of epidemiology, promoted by a simple press release written by the university public relations department or people like me.

The system is not perfect.

One would not expect to see a well-known academic at the University of Vermont stop bashing soda and praising milk or another professor at the University of Minnesota, home of General Mills, to stop singing the praises of soluble fiber. Nor would one expect to see folks at the Harvard School of Public Health abandon their view of what a food label should look like versus what USDA and FDA requires. No one does research without the expectation of what the results will reveal. We all have biases, but most of us are not paranoid about every expert being "bought" by the food, chemical, drug or life science industries.

This overwhelming pipeline of science presents confusion. That is why one study does not make a difference. It is the totality of the science that matters.

Jeff Nedelman has more than 30 years of experience in various industries, including a stint as a Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator and chief lobbyist for the nation's largest food trade association. In all those years, Jeff has learned that the shortest distance between two political points is not a straight line.

Originally published Mar 21, 2013 10:00:06 AM.