Does the alcohol industry fund alcohol research and what impact does this have? Dr Gemma Mitchell, a research fellow at the University of York, spoke to researchers to find out more about how the industry’s involvement in science affects them.
What we know about alcohol, including the impact it has on our health and wellbeing, should be based on good scientific research. We should expect that this research uses the best possible tools available, can be repeated by other scientists, and is free from undue influence.
In recent years, there have been growing concerns about alcohol industry involvement in science. People are worried this involvement might make it harder to know what the truth is about alcohol. This is important, because what we know about alcohol affects what health policies are put in place to protect people from alcohol harms, and also helps us as individuals to make informed decisions about alcohol in our everyday lives.
Alcohol industry involvement in science is a controversial topic, and we don’t know very much about what it’s like to be a researcher who has industry funding or provides expert advice to industry groups – or has no associations with industry at all.
My senior colleague, Jim McCambridge, and I wanted to talk to alcohol researchers themselves to hear about their views and experiences. Were they asked to work with the alcohol industry? What was that like if they did? And if they did research the alcohol industry didn’t like, what were the consequences?
What we did
We interviewed 37 alcohol researchers across ten countries in North America and Europe. We interviewed people who had received alcohol industry funding for research at the early stage of their careers, people who had previous or ongoing connections to so-called ‘social aspects organisations’ (industry groups that claim to try and reduce the harms alcohol causes) and people who had not worked with the alcohol industry.
What are the consequences of accepting alcohol industry research funding?
Researchers need money to do research. We apply to funding agencies and other groups for this money, and if we are successful, it helps us find out new things that will hopefully benefit society in some way. What we don’t want is for that funder to bias the research we do, for example by attaching conditions to the money. These include not publishing results the funder doesn’t like, or the funder getting involved in writing the results. None of the researchers reported those types of experiences – the industry funding had ‘no strings attached’.
Although there were no strings attached, what did happen as a result of industry funding was a ‘snowball’ effect, where initial industry funding led to more industry funding and other opportunities. Receiving early career industry funding had long-term consequences for researchers, not only shaping their research networks but also leading to harms to their reputations as accepting industry funding became more controversial. This meant that accepting industry funding early in their career had risks attached that were not clear at the time.
What is it like to give expert advice and/or perform other roles with industry organisations?
Other researchers we interviewed had not accepted industry funding for research, but had former or ongoing associations with so-called “social aspects organisations”. These industry groups say they exist to help reduce the harms associated with alcohol. Recent research, however, finds no evidence they do reduce alcohol harms, but that they do offer industry excellent ‘public relations’ opportunities.
Researchers were recruited to these industry groups by their colleagues. These could be former colleagues who moved to work with industry, or academic colleagues with industry connections. The types of work involved could be short term, such as attending events or contributing to a book, or longer term, such as providing scientific advice to industry groups. These researchers were motivated by their desire to improve public health and reach out beyond academia. However, most reflected negatively on their experiences and had ended their associations, although some had positive experiences.
What about researchers with no connections to industry?
For researchers who had no connections to the alcohol industry – they had not accepted industry funding, or performed roles or attended events led by industry groups – contact with industry was nevertheless unavoidable. It happened at scientific events and policy events, including when researchers didn’t think industry would be there. Researchers who studied the alcohol industry were heavily monitored by industry, which could even lead to legal threats when industry did not like the findings researchers produced.
What needs to happen next?
What surprised us is that, even though experiences varied, there was a lot of common ground among the people we interviewed. This was an emotional topic for many, because of the impact any association with industry could have on people’s careers. Researchers wanted more evidence on what the alcohol industry is doing within science, and wanted to have polite, open discussions with their colleagues about how to respond to this activity. Importantly, almost all researchers thought alcohol industry involvement in science had been damaging.
We hope our findings will prompt more discussion about this controversial topic, and that more research is carried out on just how much the alcohol industry influences what we know about alcohol.
Written by Dr Gemma Mitchell
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.