Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sponsored research, tailor made research and cooked up research-Credibility of food research at stake?

When it comes to research and development efforts, especially those with potential commercial application, who funds them becomes critical if the results of such scientific studies are to be credible. This is the reason why public funded research assumes critical importance for protecting the health of the citizen. In a country like the US, industry is in the forefront to offer financial assistance to Universities and other R & D institutions, the obvious purpose being touted as public interest. In contrast a country like India where resources are limited and industry is reluctant to open their purse for research in public organizations, most research is funded by the government. Is it not an irony that results generated by public funded agencies are not taken seriously by the industry due to many reasons while industry sponsored projects try to ensure that there is veil of secrecy attached to them for gaining advantage vis-a-vis the competitors. Thus renowned institutions in India like CFTRI, DFRL, NISTEM and a host of universities engaged in food R & D are repositories of knowledge generated over decades of research spending huge public money. Which system is preferable for the progress of a country is indeed a vexed question with uncertain answers.

The above issue came into sharp focus after a recent report about the unethical practices perpetrated by the sugar industry in the US to mislead the government as well as the consumers through "sponsored" research in some organizations using "friendly" scientists to deflect the truth that sugar is responsible for almost all the ills faced by the American citizens during the last 50 years. Words like Cardiac disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, kidney impairment etc are magnetic words that command immediate attention by people who are concerned about the terrible health disaster looming ahead of them and how each one of them can avoid succumbing to these ailments.  It is in such an environment that sugar industry sponsored and funded research sought to assure the citizens that there is nothing wrong with consuming sugar and the real culprits are saturated fats, cholesterol and lack of physical exercise. Even if they have a point in asserting about other factors, it is is nothing but fraud to suppress the results that showed adverse impact of sugar on health and continue to pump into the market products with high levels of sugar that stimulate the taste buds of most citizens. If sugar is so innocuous why is that the whole world is now trying to curb its consumption through persuasive as well as mandatory actions to force the food industry to reduce sugar levels in their products? Such research projects are more aptly called tailor-made research to suit the needs of the sponsorer rather than a genuine scientific research!  

One is reminded of the famous quotes of the CEO of the biggest soda company in the world where in consumers were advised not to bother about sugar in the soda but concentrate on physical exercise for maintaining their body weights. That shows the mindset of the food and beverage industry which has least priority as far as the health of the citizen is concerned or the quality of the environment he lives. Though the sugar industry tried to portray sugar as a safe ingredient through its tainted research efforts, it is now universally recognized that sugar is an addictive substance like opioids and habit forming and once hooked on it is next to impossible to keep away from sugar sweetened products. On the economic side down fall of sugar from its high pedestal can have severe financial impact on industries based on beverages, confectionery including chocolates, fruit preserves, canned fruit products and pastry products. Is it not a catch 24 situation? One cannot demolish the industry which provides gainful employment to millions of people while it is criminal to ignore the harmful effects, if any, of the products the industry churns out? That is probably the logic behind the approach of governments like that in the US not to be too harsh on the industry but use persuasive efforts rather than coercive methods to ensure healthy products are made in stead of suspect products too high in sugar, fat and refined carbohydrates. 

Sponsored research generally refers to programs funded by private players among the industry to achieve a certain result of their liking but what is nauseating is the tendency of the funding party to influence the results and bring out results that suit them. The sugar research mentioned above comes under this category. There are many other instances where such studies have been financially supported by the industry and obtained results that help to market their products among the unsuspecting consumers. An excellent example is the research sponsored by the cocoa industry to implant in the minds of the consumers that chocolates are healthy because it is supposed to contain antioxidants like flavanols. Sadly this is a red herring because the harsh processing conditions undergone by cocoa beans before they become suitable for making good quality chocolates do not help to retain much of the flavanols in the final product. On the contrary chocolates are rich in saturated fats and high in sugar making them a prime candidate as a causative substance for some of the life style diseases encountered to day. Even the new generation healthy chocolates now in the market containing upwards of 70% cocoa solids are suspect products with no proven health benefits. Imagine how this industry making obviously a unhealthy product is flourishing raking up billions of dollars of business all over the world! Probably most of the so called well being products in the market to day have not undergone any sound scientific studies with hardly any credible peer review. 

In a world starved of funds for research which after all cannot bring dividends in the short term, can the scientists refuse funding from the industry? Of course not. There must be some ethical standards which have to be followed while accepting such funding. Who will set such standards? This is the duty of the research organization in collaboration with the government. While product development may be a genuine area for industry funding, especially in a country like India where captive research set ups are far and few because the astronomical cost involved in establishing them, the R & D agencies must be careful regarding projects offered by the industry to support their unjustifiable health claims and far fetched agenda. India is fortunate in having organizations like CSIR, ICAR and ICMR with a vast network of R & D laboratories with a massive number of multidisciplinary scientists and all claims made by the industry must be verified before allowing to be marketed and if there is a resource crunch those who make the claim can be charged, at least nominally so that consumers can trust such claims when printed on the label.  

Coming to cooked up research, many of the studies undertaken by scientists and degree yearning research scholars are suspect as they do not face any real test regarding the veracity of their results. Those pursuing doctoral degrees are aware that no system exists to day that can challenge their results through repeating their studies to confirm the same! This is not to brush the entire research system with tar but to highlight the lacunae of the present university research system. There may be many honest scientists with unimpeachable integrity and honesty but they are far and few in to day's permissive atmosphere where every thing is accepted as truth without undergoing the veracity check. Internationally there have been many instances where research findings are retracted after a few years of their publication, more by accident than by any genuine checking system. If some of the R & D agencies working under government aegis have miserably failed the nation in delivering what is expected from them through development of global standard technologies, lack of reliability, trust of the potential users and failure to demonstrate under field conditions are responsible. One has to admire our scientists in space agency who cannot afford to fudge results because to ensure success of the space program their work has to be demonstrable and reliable for the entire country to see. It is this golden standard scientists in other fields also must set for themselves if they do not want to loose their esteem before the public.  


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