I’m sure we’re all aware that research can be costly, PET scans for example can cost as much as £1000 an hour.But are you aware that who funds the research may effect the results? In this week’s blog I will be examining the funding bias and asking the following questions: What is it? How and why does it occur? And finally what can we do about it?

Funding bias is the tendency for the results of a study to support the interests of those funding it. A number of meta-analyses have shown that if the company funding the research manufactures the drug on trial the results are more likely to show support for the drug (Becker-Brüser, 2010; Baker et al, 2003). This is worrying as it may result in ineffective or possibly dangerous drugs reaching the public. It’s important to realise that this isn’t limited to pharmaceutical research and evidence has shown funding bias exists across a number of industries such as Tobacco (Turner & Spilich, 2006) and mobile phone companies (Huss et al, 2007) to name a few.

Now that we’ve identified what is it, I want to ask why it occurs? Of the all the questions that this blog attempts to answer, the question of “why” is probably the most difficult. In this articleFlorence Colantuono suggests the reason for funding bias lays in human nature, stating that researchers may feel a sense of loyalty and a desire to please the company. So before we start accusing these researchers of cold-heartedly meddling with their findings for financial gain let’s try and see things from their perspective. Pharmaceutical companies face tremendous pressure, health services and the public rely on them to provide treatments and cures. New drugs have to go through a rigorous series of tests before they’re released(read more here) this can take around 10-15 years of on going research. Over this time a great deal of time and money is riding on a particular outcome. If they were to find that the drug is ineffective then all that time and money is wasted. This doesn’t excuse them, but I’m sure you can see how a researcher will succumb to a certain decision in these particular circumstances. Researchers will sometimes be employees of the company, in which case financial incentives are awarded for completing research early or for dedication to the company. Prochaska, Hall, Bero, 2008 found that tobacco companies based research grants on the likelihood of the research producing a favourable results

You may think that these manipulations would be obvious to those viewing the paper, however In this article Richard Smith a retired editor for the British medical journal claims this is not the case. He states that researcher do not “fiddle directly with results” as this would be “far too crude, and possibly detectable”. This leads us on to the penultimate question of how funding bias occurs. Smith and his colleagues have compiled a list of “tricks of the trade” used to achieve desired results. These include: testing a drug against a less effective drug, testing the drugs against substantially lower and higher doses to seem comparatively less toxic or more effective. You will know that a variety of different variables can serve as a measure of the same construct e.g. stress could be determined by heart rate, levels of cortisol ect. Researchers may choose measures that are likely to reflect more favourably in the results. In the article the example given refers to research on perchlorate exposure (an ingredient in rocket-fuel). Scientists working for perchlorate manufacturers used a single thyroid hormone as a measure of harm. These scientists found that safe levels of exposure were close to three times higher than that of a NAS(National Academy of Sciences ) experiment who used a different measure. Florence Colantuono in the previously mentioned article suggests that companies will withhold or delay the publication of undesirable research, this is supported by Prochaska, Hall, Bero, 2008 who that found tobacco companies would withhold the publication of unfavourable results.

So far we’ve looked at what funding bias is, why and how it occurs, but what can be done to resolve this problem? Florence Colantuono suggests a number of changes can be made to research policy to reduce funding bias:


1) Keeping contact between the researcher and the company to minimum
2) Grants should not be based on outcome of speed of research
3) Funders should not withhold research or prevent the publication of results

 

These suggestions seem to make sense, but I feel are a overly simplistic. However I’m not going to attempt to solve the problem of funding bias in a blog. Instead I’d like to focus on what we can personally do, after all my goal is to educate the reader(or at least get your started somewhat). You’ve taken a good first step, in that now you’re aware of the funding bias. But now the goal is to incorporate this knowledge into your evaluation of papers. Most papers will include funding information on the first few pages, google the company that funded it, ask the question “what are their motives in this research?” Ask if the results may have been influenced by the funding, because the research we’ve reviewed suggests that there’s a good chance of that being so.

References:

PET Scan Information – http://www.scandirectory.com/content/pet-scan.asp

Becker-Brüser, 2010 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20608245

Baker et al, 2003 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14645020

Huss et al, 2007 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17366811


Turner & Spilich, 2006 –
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9519485

Prochaska, Hall, Bero, 2008 –

http://schizophreniabulletin.oxfordjournals.org/content/34/3/555.full

Florence Colantuono – http://www.experiment-resources.com/research-grant-funding.html

Information on Cancer drug trials – http://cancerhelp.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-questions/how-long-does-it-take-for-a-new-drug-to-go-through-clinical-trials

Richard Smith – http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/14/AR2008071402145.html

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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