Research agenda influenced by grants, industry


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Last week’s column sparked the kind of chippy back-and-forthing on Twitter that’s all too common in today’s dialogues about modern food production.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/09/2018 (1413 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Last week’s column sparked the kind of chippy back-and-forthing on Twitter that’s all too common in today’s dialogues about modern food production.

The column presented the view of University of Saskatchewan associate professor Stuart Smyth, who occupies the industry-funded Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation at the university.

“It’s a damn shame that the author only offered Smyth’s version of his form of ‘Scicomm (science communications),’” one reader tweeted.

Others took issue with the fact Smyth’s research is supported by industry with a mandate to “provide the industry with research from a neutral perspective, but one that will hold industry interests as a priority.”

Smyth responded to his Twitter critics: “Thanks for publicly revealing that you have no idea of how academic research is undertaken. Matching industry funding is required on most federal public grants and has been for decades.”

The average Canadian can’t be expected to know that, but he’s right.

The federal budget brought in by the Liberal government in 1995 marked a pivotal shift in how research is funded in this country. In addition to major cuts to government and programs, the government of the day introduced the concept of “matching industry investment,” which meant most research investments would be cost-shared with industry stakeholders.

The prevailing mood of that era was bloated governments and publicly funded research had lost touch with commercial reality.

This has resulted in research that more closely matched industry’s innovation needs, but many have questioned over the years whether serving industry interests is always consistent with serving the public interest.

A newly published paper by Australian researchers at the University of Sydney offers insight on that question.

After reviewing dozens of research articles, members of the Evidence, Policy and Influence Collaborative from the university’s Charles Perkins Centre concluded industry investment alters the research agenda in two ways. It changes the questions being asked and it emphasizes research that leads to packaged solutions.

“Receiving funding from industry was associated with a tendency to shift research agendas towards more applied research with commercial application,” lead author Alice Fabbri said in a release.

“The medical industry tends to fund research on products with the potential to generate high incomes such as drugs and devices,” she said.

“Meanwhile, food industry-sponsored research typically focuses on single nutrients rather than dietary patterns, allowing companies to market manufactured products containing certain nutrients as beneficial to health.”

This team said its findings demonstrate the need for more effective strategies to assess and limit commercial bias in research.

“While it is self-evident industries will fund research on their own products or to support their own positions, these are not always aligned with public health,” co-author Lisa Bero said.

These researchers call for better disclosure policies to increase the transparency around the role industry plays in shaping research questions or promoting some research questions and discouraging others.

No one can say Stuart Smyth’s agenda isn’t transparent, and it shouldn’t be surprising the industry wants its voice and its perspective on science to be heard.

If Canadians want more publicly funded research that takes an independent view, the onus is on us to convince governments to put more chips in the game.

Laura Rance is editorial director at Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or

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