Next time you read a scientific study, you might want to check who funded the research. It's an open secret that many multinational companies dabble in the dark art of commercially funded research – especially health and nutrition research – and that has some worrying implications when it comes to transparency.
A new study, published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, has shined a spotlight on soda moguls Coca-Cola and the provisions they use to control the scientific research they fund in public universities across North America. A team of policy and public health experts led by the University of Cambridge in the UK detail how Coca-Cola funds numerous piece of health research at public universities in the US and Canada, but maintains a clause in the contract that allows them to “terminate without reason” and walk away with all rights to the data.
In theory, this gives them the power to bury any research that doesn’t serve their cause.
“These contracts suggest that Coke wanted the power to bury research it funded that might detract from its image or profits,” study author Gary Ruskin, co-director of US Right to Know, a consumer advocacy group pursuing transparency in the US food system, said in a statement.
“With the power to trumpet positive findings and bury negative ones, Coke-funded science seems more like an exercise in public relations.”
Although the study didn't find any examples of the quashing clause being used, the researchers argue their findings contradicts Coca-Cola’s commitment to transparent science – an issue the company has come under fire for time and time again.
The discovery came about after trawling through 87,013 pages of documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests, which pulled up five research agreements made with four universities: Louisiana State University, University of South Carolina, University of Toronto, and the University of Washington.
Contracts show Coca-Cola does not stick its nose into the day-to-day conduct of scientists, however, it does retain various rights throughout the process. For example, it has the power to demand updates and comment on findings prior to research publication. The company also dictated the phrasing of the funding statement in several of the agreements. More crucially, it even has the power to prevent publication of research.
“Coca-Cola have declared themselves at the forefront of transparency when it comes to food and beverage giants funding health research. In fact, our study suggests that important research might never see the light of day and we would never know about it,” said lead author Dr Sarah Steele, a policy researcher from Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies.
“We are already hearing accusations from experts in nutrition that the food industry is copying tactics from big tobacco’s playbook. Corporate social responsibility has to be more than just shiny websites stating progressive policies that get ignored.”
In light of their research, the study authors call on corporate funders to publish lists of terminated studies. They also ask journals to make more extensive disclosures and conflict-of-interest statements that require study authors to attach funder agreements.