Buying an evidence-base?

The Breakers Palm Beach

From the New York Times:

It was going to be a study that could change the American diet, a huge clinical trial that might well deliver all the medical evidence needed to recommend a daily alcoholic drink as part of a healthy lifestyle.

That was how two prominent scientists and a senior federal health official pitched the project during a presentation at the luxurious Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2014. And the audience members who were being asked to help pay for the $100 million study seemed receptive: They were all liquor company executives.

The 10-year government trial is now underway, and Anheuser Busch InBev, Heineken and other alcohol companies are picking up most of the tab, through donations to a private foundation that raises money for the National Institutes of Health.

. . .

The alcohol study is overseen by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one of 27 centers under the N.I.H. The lead investigator and N.I.H. officials have said repeatedly that they never discussed the planning of the study with the industry. But a different picture emerges from emails and travel vouchers obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as from interviews with former federal officials.

The documents and interviews show that the institute waged a vigorous campaign to court the alcohol industry, paying for scientists to travel to meetings with executives, where they gave talks strongly suggesting that the study’s results would endorse moderate drinking as healthy.

It can be argued that we are facing a crisis of faith in institutions.

It’s going to be hard to maintain or restore faith if researchers and institutions behave in untrustworthy ways.

On the one hand, there is nothing surprising in this story.

On the other hand, it appears that the findings were determined and before the research began and they raised money on the basis of these predetermined findings.

That’s shocking.

It also invites all sorts of other musings.

  • What other evidence was decided upon before the research began?
  • What other interests are invited to invest in research that will benefit them financially?
  • What would have happened to this research if the findings were not satisfactory to the alcohol lobby?
  • Many of us have been puzzled by the failure to integrate NIAAA and NIDA. Have ties between the alcohol lobby and NIAAA contributed to this? (Because they don’t want alcohol treated as a drug? Or, because those ties would become more complicated in a merged agency?)
  • Are there similar problems at NIDA?

3 thoughts on “Buying an evidence-base?

  1. Thanks for writing about this, Jason. Indeed, it is a crisis of faith. When science is misused in these ways, paired with an insistence that only the”evidence-based” is valid (practice-based is discounted), we’re put in a tricky vise-grip. We can end up with science applied in excess, science used to mislead, and a use of “scientific outcome” to quell inquiry and critical discussion — a kind of anti-science born of science. The NIAAA has a long history of doing the bidding of the beverage alcohol industry, but this is particularly craven.

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  2. You raise some excellent questions about this appalling story, Jason. If you’re interested, I address #4 on your list @ my new blog, The Sober Heretic in a post titled “Drugs ‘and’ Alcohol,” and I also have a couple of posts on the $100 million “moderate drinking” study.

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