Published on April 19th, 2021
Professor Andrew Scholey, Director Metavate
Research conducted by Professors Andrew Scholey and Con Stough includes studies into the effects of bioactive nutrients on brain and cognition. These have been funded by international and national competitive grants (NCGs), and from industry. There has been some debate over the role of industry funding - an important issue which needs to be based on facts rather than conjecture.
Should Research into the health benefits of natural products be funded by government?
Government funding of natural health research varies by country. Such funding is rare unless it focuses directly on a) modifying a disease, b) understanding disease mechanisms or c) reducing disease risk.
If we wish to find out whether or not a dietary intervention improves some aspect of health, the choice is often between industry-supported research or no research. It is also not unusual to receive feedback for NCG proposals stating explicitly that, although the science is sound, the research should be supported by industry! Even if this position changed, funding for research is extremely competitive. For example, in Australia the National Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funded around 9.8% of applications for its ‘ideas’ grants (awarded for projects) and 13.3% of ‘investigator’ (awarded to a person) grants. Industry plays an increasingly valuable role in supporting natural health research, so it is vital that this is conducted to the highest possible standards.
Is industry funded research inherently more biased than government funded research?
For academics, the motivations for conducting industry-funded research are the same as for any funding. The research is subject to the same peer-review processes prior to publication in high impact journals. The requirements for research to support health claims from nutritional interventions and the like have varying levels of stringency in the USA, Europe and Australia, but all trials should be conducted to the standards of Good Clinical Practice. This involves registering the study on a public clinical trials registry such as the Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry or clinicaltrials.gov.
The listing for a given trial identifies the primary variable(s) to ensure that Type 1 errors (‘false positives’) are not misreported as reflecting the primary research question. Type 1 errors can occur when there are multiple outcomes (although of course they can be positive or negative). For this reason, industry-sponsored trials routinely use third party biostatisticians who follow a pre-determined statistical plan. Typically, the studies are monitored by independent auditors to ensure data integrity. These processes are time consuming; resource heavy and not always pleasant but good researchers welcome the rigour they bring to research. Ironically, most studies funded by NGC schemes are not always subjected to the same level of scrutiny.
Perhaps there are researchers who (consciously or unconsciously) put a positive spin on industry-sponsored studies. Equally is there any reason to think that the reporting of NGC-sponsored research can be (consciously or unconsciously) biased to avoid being amongst the 87% or more of non-funded applications in the next round? Researchers’ value to industry lies in the very fact that they are unbiased. In order to maintain rigour, researchers in this area have an obligation to report negative and/or null findings, indeed this is often written into the research contract. While statements made for the purposes of marketing can be appallingly misleading, this is completely independent of the science undertaken to evaluate the efficacy (or not) of products. It is essential to conduct double-blind, placebo-controlled trials which are rigorous enough to be published in the same peer-reviewed journals as mainstream drug research. The peer reviewers are aware of funding sources and judge the research accordingly on its merit. The funding landscape for natural health research is becoming increasingly sophisticated, to paint it simply in terms of ‘government good/industry bad’ is intellectually lazy and does nothing to help scientific progress or, more importantly translation to public health benefits.