Fresh questions have been raised over whether academic conflict of interest statements are adequate after a study found that Coca-Cola has the power to pull the plug without reason on some of its sponsored research projects.
Using freedom of information powers, academics uncovered details of the sway the soft drinks manufacturer holds over health research that it helps to fund, including at five public institutions in the US and Canada.
This includes the “right to comment on papers prior to publication” and the “ability to terminate studies at any time without reasons”, potentially giving it the power to halt research producing unfavourable results or to exert pressure on scientists carrying out their work.
Sponsors could tell academics “if you don’t take our comments, we can pull the study without reason and take all the data”, warned Sarah Steele, an author of the study and a senior research associate at the University of Cambridge. In one instance, Coca-Cola terminated a project and “little or no information” was sent to researchers, the study found.
The investigation, published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, concludes that the findings add to concerns that existing conflict of interest statements are of “limited usefulness” because they do not spell out the full extent of corporate influence over a research project.
Currently, such statements often merely acknowledge that research has been “supported by” a particular company, explained Dr Steele.
Instead, academics who produce papers involving work funded by corporations such as Coca-Cola should be required to upload their research contracts alongside their articles when they publish, she said.
Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, and a prominent campaigner on scientific conflicts of interest, said that this new investigation had shown that existing conflict statements were “less than truthful”.
“At the moment, I see many professional journals not taking [conflicts of interest] seriously, thereby giving researchers licence not to disclose,” she said. “But the real issue is keeping industry funders completely out of the research process. Research ought to be investigator initiated and controlled. Otherwise, it’s marketing research, not science,” Professor Nestle added.
A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola pointed out that the investigation had acknowledged that there was “no evidence” that the company had pulled research projects to quash unfavourable findings or had exerted pressure on researchers.
In 2016, after a string of newspaper investigations into its backing for research that shifted blame for obesity away from eating and drinking habits, Coca-Cola said it would no longer fund more than half the costs of health research projects.