Distortions: Unbalanced assessment of conflict of interest

A few weeks ago I posted a link to the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research’s critique of the CCSA report. It’s quite the read.

I also tweeted it out and immediately got a response from a follower pointing out what seemed to be conflict of interest as detailed in a slide deck from Dr. R. Curtis Ellison, one of ISFAR’s chairs, which can be viewed here. More detail is listed in the ISFAR’s general disclosure statement.

As with most academic studies these days, Ellison includes a “Potential Conflict of Interest” statement: “Partial expenses for operating the Forum are from unrestricted donations to Boston University from associations and companies in the beverage industry (including NY Wine & Grape Foundation, Diageo, Brown-Forman) As donors have no input into the papers reviewed by the Forum or the opinions published, the IRB at Boston University has deemed that these do not constitute a conflict of interest.”

Note that Boston University’s Institutional Review Board (the IRB, the body in each university that ensures research is done ethically and oversees potential conflicts of interest) concluded that there was no conflict of interest owing the the arms-length nature of these donations and the lack of direct connection with the research results. (The disclosure statement to which I link above gives more detail about the ISFAR’s funding)

This led to other commentaries elsewhere suggesting that the ISFAR is just a front for the booze industry. Again, we see the “Big Alcohol” versus the angels of the public health business. See a previous post where I explore this in more detail.

Although not surprising, the response that jumped to accusations of conflict of interest is also disappointing, and for three reasons.

First, the IRB, which is an independent body at one of the ISFAR member’s institutions and whose job is to ensure all research done through Boston U is done with integrity, has concluded that this is not the case.

Second, jumping to look for conflict of interest means many people haven’t even read the critique. It is extensive and scathing, and range far wider than anything I have said. You should read it.

Third, and most troubling, people seem to have overlooked the statements of conflict of interest in the CCSA’s documents. Read it here.

In the CCSA statement, all relevant connections of the team that put together the CCSA report are laid out, and any potential conflicts of interest are explained. For many there is no potential conflict of interest. For some there are connections that potentially bias the researcher. Others are dismissed as not reasonably being likely to affect the perspective of the researcher. This is all standard stuff and suggests the integrity of the organization.

However, unlike the Boston University IRB, which has an arms-length relationship with the work of the ISFAR, the CCSA’s statement of conflict of interest is written by members of the CCSA itself. And since the report is a major output of this organization, and thus tied to its reputation, ongoing funding, and ability to do its work (and employ its staff), you would be forgiven if you thought maybe the CCSA was trying to minimize the impact of the various influences that might have affected the report’s findings.

I am not trying to cast doubt on the integrity of the individual researchers by drawing attention to the CCSA disclosure statement and the potential biases it discusses. What I am doing is trying to remind people that if they want to look at the ISFAR’s critique as biased by conflict of interest even though an arms length IRB says otherwise, then they must, in fairness, apply at least the same skeptical lens to the CCSA’s report, which has no independent, arms length assessment of its potential conflicts of interest.

There is no bias in research, but there are different ways it can be framed and dismissed. Don’t assume that someone who is not connected to a big corporate for-profit entity is without bias or conflict of interest. There are no angels here.

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