Over the weekend, the New York Times published a bombshell report on alarming ties between the alcohol industry and the National Institutes of Health. Specifically, five alcohol companies helped fund — and potentially shaped the design of — a 7,800-person randomized control trial overseen by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a center at the NIH. The trial is supposed to answer the long-simmering question of whether moderate drinking truly reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The most shocking detail in the story: The researchers behind the study reportedly persuaded alcohol industry executives to fund them by arguing the trial "represents a unique opportunity to show that moderate alcohol consumption is safe and lowers risk of common diseases" — before they had even enrolled their first patient.
The study "is not public health research — it's marketing," Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, told Times reporter Roni Caryn Rabin.
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The story is, without a doubt, troubling and raises many questions about research integrity at NIH. For now, the agency is investigating the debacle.
And several questions linger: Why would one of the world's elite publicly funded scientific institutions turn to the alcohol industry for fundraising? If they needed the money, why did they seemingly fail to set up an adequate firewall between the industry and the researchers? Why were the researchers promising conclusions before starting the study?
But it's also, to some degree, business as usual in science today.
Dozens of industry-sponsored studies have shaped our perceptions of food and beverages, from the blueberries we eat for breakfast to the red wine we drink with dinner and dark chocolate we snack on at night. This trial again shows "the great prevalence of the belief that corporate funding has no influence on research," despite reams of evidence to the contrary, said New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle.
That naïveté, apparently, can be found even at one of the most prestigious research institutions in the world.