The headline in the BBC News is “Fat ‘disrupts sugar sensors causing type 2 diabetes’” The article does not attribute the quotation in the headline and the first sentence says “US researchers say they have identified how a high-fat diet can trigger type 2 diabetes, in experiments on mice and human tissue.” Should “mice” or “tissue” have been in the headline? Should the article itself point out the extent to which mice respond differently, sometimes, oppositely from humans, to high-fat diets? How strong is the evidence in light of other work? Is the article altogether prejudicing the reader against fat which is the official position of both private and government health agencies? The article in question may have some sins of omission but it is certainly restrained if not actually circumspect. The general problem, of course, is whether we get accurate scientific information from the popular media.
Peter Farnham and I and a group of bloggers (Laura Dolszon, Tom Naughton and Jimmy Moore) will speak at the end of the month at a conference produced by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI)) where we will raise several issues in the ethical conduct of current nutritional research. The conference, in general, tries to explore a number of questions on the interaction of science and society. The goals are to “discuss the latest research on research integrity…education in the responsible conduct of research; responsible research practices.” While each presenter will have only 15 minutes, this is one of the first times thatd the practices in nutrition with regard to issues of integrity are being addressed. There are four areas that we will discuss:
Crisis in Nutrition I: The Popular Media and Research Publications
Richard David Feinman, SUNY Downstate Medical Center
Crisis in Nutrition II: Research Integrity in Meeting the Challenge of Carbohydrate Restriction
Richard David Feinman, SUNY Downstate Medical Center
Crisis in Nutrition III: Was the Government Standard Met by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines?
Peter Farnham, Nutrition and Metabolism Society, Alexandria, VA
Crisis in Nutrition IV: Vox Populi
Tom Naughton, Jimmy Moore, Laura Dolson, Independent Writers Franklin TN
The abstract of my first talk is presented below. It is, of course, a tricky area. Within some legal limits, reporters can say what they like. A researcher speaking in a public venue, personal blog, social media can similarly pretty much sound of as they choose. Or can they? If they are identified as an expert or are have credentials based on a employment by a prestigious institution, don’t they have to clearly distinguish between opinion and fact? And does the headline have to say that, for example, the high-fat study was done in mice? All of these are gray areas and motives are hard to discern. I focussed on one area that seemed more clear cut. If an experimental study is reported in the media or in a press release from an academic institution (sometimes the same thing), is there an obligation to be sure that any opinions attributed to the investigator derives from that research unless otherwise indicated?
Crisis in nutrition: I. The popular media and research publications
The public relies on popular media for descriptions of nutrition research. Of particular interest is carbohydrate-restricted diets, the major challenge to official recommendations. The goal is to assess the extent to which statements to the media and press releases accurately represent the results of research.
Summary of findings or main points:
Nutrition is an area of great interest to the public but one where matters of scientific fact and policy are contentious. Authors of research papers should sensibly have great freedom in describing of the implications of their research, but have an important role in explaining to the public when that opinion does or does not follow directly from the publication. Two examples are given of where this is a critical issue. In one, an animal study (Foo, et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2009, 106: 15418-15423), the accompanying press release implies that it was motivated by observations of patients in a hospital, observations which were purely anecdotal and unsubstantiated. In a second example, a press release stated that carbohydrate-restricted diets (CRDs) were not included in a comparative study because of their low compliance (Sacks, et al. N Engl J Med 2009, 360: 859-873). No data were given to support this allegation and, it is, in fact not true. The study concluded that the macronutrient composition of the diet was not important even though, as implemented, dietary intake was the same for the groups studied and, again, the CRD was not included in the study. It seems likely that that this would have an inhibiting effect on individuals choosing a CRD and represents an important impact of research integrity issues on the community.
Conclusions & recommendations:
Practices where research directly affects the community should be evaluated and guidelines should be generated by academic societies, scientific journals and the popular media. What constitutes appropriate press description of published research should be defined. Reasonable principles are that only those specific conclusions that derive directly from the publication are relevant and authors make clear what is their personal opinion and what is the product of research data.
Office of Research Integrity
It is important to emphasize that ORI is sponsor of this academic conference and is not related to is regulatory function. ORI is charged with overseeing federally funded research and emphasizes its role as watchdog in detection and prevention of research misconduct, assisting the Office of the General Counsel (OGC), dealing with suspected retaliation against whistleblowers, and responding to Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts. Its usual activity involves pinpointing specific fraud. The website reports, for example, a final judgement against an Assistant Professor at the Boston University School of Medicine Cancer Research Center who published two papers in which he had fabricated data shown as figures in the paper. He is required to retract the papers and not enter into contracts or sit on advisory panels for two years.
ORI, in general, has the same relation to the research community that Internal Affairs has to the police. Of course, in research, although there are substantive rewards, blatant fraud is generally pathological: if the results you are falsifying are important, they will surely be repeated and the misbehavior discovered while, if they are not important, the rewards are not likely to be spectacular although, especially these days, keeping your job is desirable. The suspicion about ORI is also bolstered by their behavior in the Baltimore case in which they were part of the mindless zeal and witch-hunting whose appearance in human interactions seems to have such a low activation energy.
David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine and, at the time, MIT professor, had co-authored a paper with an immunologist named Thereza Imanishi-Kari who was accused by a postdoctoral fellow of fabricating data. In the end, nothing came of it but there was much sound and fury and many idiots participated in the tale including the Secret Service (who I was taught were only supposed to protect the President and prosecute counterfeiters). The details of the Baltimore case are well told in capsule form in the Wikipedia entry. Daniel Kevles wrote an outstanding book, at least judged by the first half — the content was too infuriating for me to keep reading. In any case, after most of the furor had died down, the ORI persisted and found Imanishi-Kari guilty of research misconduct, a ruling overturned by an appeals panel of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which “found that much of what ORI presented was irrelevant, had limited probative value, was internally inconsistent, lacked reliability or foundation, was not credible or not corroborated, or was based on unwarranted assumptions.” the ORI reputation has probably not recovered from this but it remains one of the few oversight agencies which, at least in nutrition, is sorely needed.
David Baltimore wrote his own description of the events and emphasized that it raise many questions, in particular, “Who should judge science?” and “How does one distinguish between error and fraud? And does science do an adequate job of policing itself?” The conference and this blog will discuss these matters which the crisis in nutrition has made of critical importance. Such philosophical questions were formerly what most of us would have preferred to simply gab about in Starbucks.