Corporate sponsorship of academic studies is diverting researchers away from important public health questions and potentially distorting government policy, a new study has found. The findings, published by University of Sydney researchers in the American Journal of Public Health highlight the influence of the alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceutical, food, mining and chemical industries on the agenda of academic researchers.
Researchers examined 36 industry-sponsored articles between 1986 and 2017, more than half of which were medically related (pharmaceuticals, medical devices or diagnostic testing). It examined four papers on tobacco, three on the food industry, three on plant or animal biotechnology, and others relating to the alcohol, chemical, or mining industries. The study found corporate sponsorship tends to divert researchers’ attention towards “products or activities that can be commercialised”. This risked warping government policy by limiting the evidence available to government, it found.
“Our findings suggest that corporate interests can influence research agendas,” the report said. “Bias in the research agenda can produce results that support only certain policy responses to tackle pressing public health problems, which in turn affect the population’s health.”
“They use the same strategies,” the lead author, Alice Fabbri, told Guardian Australia. “They fund research that can be used to promote their products or distract from the harms of their products, or to drive the research away from policies that will tend to harm them.” Greater independent funding for research was crucial in reducing a reliance on corporate sponsorship, she said. In Italy, pharmaceutical companies are required to contribute 5% of their marketing budget to an independently administered pool of funds, which is then used to fund research, Fabbri said. This reduced the ability of individual companies to fund research that suited their business.
The study cites the example of Coca-Cola, saying the company attempted to shift attention away from the role sugary drinks play in obesity by funding research on the benefits of physical activity. The study found Coca-Cola had sponsored 20 scientific papers, and the conclusions of 14 aligned with the company’s marketing strategies. The paper, published in the European Journal of Public Health this month, found that Coca-Cola’s research sponsorship suited its commercial objectives and could be at odds with public health efforts.
Guardian Australia explored the significant influence wielded by the pharmaceutical industry over politics and government. Seventy-two different pharmaceutical companies were found to have engaged political lobbyists from 29 separate firms. The industry has donated about $4.7m in the past 19 years to both major parties. Former health department secretary and Grattan Institute researcher Stephen Duckett said the industry’s power was warping policy and helping to keep medicine prices high.