Jeff Stier

This shoddy and uneven reporting happens all the time, but the conflicts aren't always so obvious. Countless studies are funded by foundations and, just like industry, foundations have a view of their own and an agenda to further. A study funded by the well known Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for instance, may list the Foundation as a funder, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The media that report on the study should point out what may not be clear from the foundation's name: it regularly seeks more government regulation. Far from funding all science and letting the chips fall where they may, RWJF has an agenda and the studies it funds support that big government agenda

Other studies, produced by environmental activist groups, are funded by donations to the groups' individual donors. You don't need to be a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist to note that those funders tend to be plaintiffs lawyers. Conflict? Apparently not to reporters.

The credibility of any study ought to be evaluated based on the substance of the report. Be it the science, or in this case, the policy arguments. Just because the report was funded by the FDA doesn't mean it shouldn't be considered valid.

But if groups seeking greater regulation, such as CSPI, are so concerned about disclosing conflicts, why aren't they crying foul over this blatant lapse. It seems these groups really aren’t concerned about conflicts. Rather, they are against the interests of the corporations that fund science – and they seek to discredit their science, regardless of the merits.

Industry does tend to support studies they believe will help their business. What company would invest in a study the believed would undermine their interests? But that doesn't mean they skew studies; it simply means they invest in studies that are likely to come out in their favor. And the simple fact is that so do advocacy groups.

In this era of "full disclosure," some less-diligent news outlets use the source of funding as a shortcut for evaluating credibility. Since funding is supposed to only be a red flag for a potential bias, why not look under the hood of a study and see if that the potential conflict actually led to a methodological flaw? Some reporters have told me (off the record, of course) that that would be too time consuming and expensive. Fair enough.

Perhaps the industries that fund science aren't the ones that we need to scrutinize more closely. We ought to challenge the media for distorting science by self- righteously highlighting potential conflicts in industry-funded science, while giving a wink and a nod to science funded by the government and activist-loving foundations with their own agenda.

If disclosure is the rule of the day, the media should require equal and full disclosure -- not just disclosure from industry source. Talk about bias!


Jeff Stier

Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and directs its Risk Analysis Division. You can follow him on Twitter at @JeffAStier.