Industry-funded academic work is nothing new and in fact, many researchers at colleges big and small have come to rely on corporate grants. Yet the debate continues about whether and how industry-supported initiatives have an inherent bias, whether they can truly be free of outside influence. One does have to look critically at studies funded by a commodity group, food manufacturer or anyone else with a desire to sell more of a particular good as it's not uncommon for these studies to end up touting the benefits of a particular food, diet or beverage. You get the point.
Food manufacturers and others have also funded academic buildings, departments, projects, and the list goes on. The latest controversy to make news occurred just this week when the University of Colorado School of Medicine returned a $1m grant to start an organization apparently focused on obesity prevention.
The funding was intended for a group called the Global Energy Balance Network. Their mission is to "connect and engage multi-disciplinary scientists and other experts around the globe dedicated to applying and advancing the science of energy balance to achieve healthier living." Yet an August New York Times story highlighted the work of this group, and its efforts to shift the blame for obesity away from "bad diets" and onto our (lack of) physical activity. Nutrition advocates responded to the NYT, noting the bias in this group's approach and the relatively obvious strategy in getting a soda company to focus on obesity contributors that steer clear of their products.
University of Colorado was in a pickle. In the end, they stated that the funding source "detracted attention from its worthwhile goal;" the money will now going to the Boys & Girls Club of America.
This certainly isn't the first, nor will it be the last, industry-academic ethical debate. With institutions increasingly relying on corporate dollars, this serves as a reminder to look at where the resources are coming from, one's approach and ultimately, the group's actions or implications.