When leading alcoholic beverage makers pay the bulk of $100 million for a study to determine whether a daily drink leads to better health, can the research results believably be free of bias? The National Institutes of Health has seriously damaged its credibility as one of the world’s leading medical research centers by obtaining industry funding for such a study.
The NIH is an unlikely agency to be embroiled in a real-vs.-fake news controversy. More than $30 billion in tax dollars are invested annually in the health institutes, where the world’s preeminent scientists and physicians explore the boundaries of biomedical research. The nature of their work is to use scientific methods to tease out fact from hypotheses or unfounded assertions.
When the nation is riddled with doubt about real and phony information and the relative merits of scientific findings, it is alarming that this highly regarded science agency would collude with donors who clearly want to see an outcome favorable to their future sales. Even if the findings aren’t tainted, from a public perspective, the funding source destroys any semblance of objectivity.
The nation needs the NIH to use its scarce resources to fight for answers to devastating health issues. The alcohol industry has no stake in safeguarding public health. No one faults the industry for trying to sell its product, but the NIH shouldn’t be complicit in it.
The NIH is doubly culpable for having courted the industry to fund a study on whether a daily alcoholic drink is medically recommendable to promote good health. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which should have steered clear of the study, is instead overseeing it.
Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Carlsberg contributed $67.7 million to the study. Their contributions were routed through the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, an independent nonprofit that raises funds to support NIH research.
NIH policy is clear about researchers avoiding financial conflicts of interest and maintaining objectivity. At the same time, though, the White House and Congress continue to question the validity of science and keep a choke hold on funding. The industry participation in this study seems more likely to add to lawmaker skepticism and lead to future funding cuts.
Officials of the NIH and NIAAA knew these actions would compromise their integrity and tried to hide it, but The New York Times found contradictory evidence through interviews and the Freedom of Information Act.
The NIH director said the agency will examine the effort to determine whether it violated federal policy. Clearer policies and stricter enforcement would help protect this valuable agency’s hard-won reputation in the future.
— St. Louis Post-Dispatch