A Question of Ethics within Research

We all probably agree that research into some of mankind’s major problems is essential.  Furthermore, the growing obesity epidemic is probably one of the most pressing problems facing the Western world.  Indeed the problem is now spreading to countries that have never faced this issue before including China and India.

But research costs money, lots of money, and the better and more in depth the research – the more that it costs.  So who will fund these costs?

It’s a question that is often raised and a recent paper from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology has raised it again.  In this paper, an article has been published reviewing the relationship between obesity and heart disease – their case is that a decline in physical activity is the primary cause of the increase in obesity.

Now this sounds fine on an initial reading, but when you dig deeper you start to worry about this report.  For instance I personally have read several reports and extensive studies which have found that in fact there has been very little decline in physical activity in our lives.  One study particularly focused on children actually found that they were at least as active as children from three decades ago.  The evidence sometimes doesn’t always fit into what we expect to see.

But there is more of a worry from a research point of view with this paper.  Obviously there will always be the case where some research points one way and others in the opposite direction.  It’s the nature of research and the reality is that finance limits important factors like sample space.  Even when you use the internet to increase coverage, there are many difficulties.  For instance restricting your respondents based on certain factors is rather complicated online – many people lie, make up answers, hide their locations even to watch BBC in Australia – like this.   Any of these could seriously skew your results.

This is more about logistics though, in the case of this particular paper, the worry is about who the authors were. Three of the five authors reported a financial relationship with the drinks company – Coca Cola.

It’s a perfectly valid conclusion that the current obesity  issues are due to falling levels of activity.  But there is an equally valid (and many would say much more) opinion that the issue is due to fast food and the increase of sugar in people’s diets.  The problem is when you read a report where 60% of the authors have a financial link to a global purveyor of sugar filled drinks, it’s difficult not to be suspicious of the results.

Of course the read the report yourself, and make your own judgement. There is an important debate though about the value of such research.  What is the value of commercially sponsored research like this, with the best will in the world – any expert involved who is being paid is going to struggle to be completely impartial. In some areas the conclusions might not be that important but with health issues like this, they could be crucial.

Stuart Pearson: IT and Development News.