Don't Throw Good Science Out with Conflict of Interest Bathwater
Sep 28, 2018
There has been a lot of conversation lately regarding conflicts of interest in research. This recent tweet by Andrew Kniss resonated a lot with me:
"Things I've learned recently about how to handle Conflicts of Interest:
1) if COI is not disclosed, dismiss the work as biased.
2) if the COI is disclosed, dismiss the work as biased.
3) if no COI exists, dismiss the work as biased because the author isn't being transparent."
No doubt conflicts of interest are important to be aware of and understand. We definitely want to maintain the highest integrity with regard to science communication and research. However, it is important that COI 'labels' don't become the new 'free-from' label i.e. we don't want a conflict of interest to necessarily become conflated with bad science any more than we would want a GMO label to be conflated with unhealthy or unsustainable. We don't want COI to become the red herring for smear campaigns, political correctness, or a disincentive to doing good science.
About a year ago during one of his excellent talking biotech podcasts (specifically regarding the movie Food Evolution) Kevin Folta made an excellent point about COI and bias in research:
"I've trained for 30 years to be able to understand statistics and experimental design and interpretation...I'll decide based on the quality of the data and the experimental design....that's what we do."
COI involve a delicate balance. I think the recent controversy around COI highlights the importance for producers and communicators of science to get this right. There's also a challenge for consumers of science to know how to recognize good science without throwing it out with the COI bathwater.