Sweet Success

Clearly, transparency is critical but how much does the source of funding matter if it is fully disclosed?

Among the scientific community, government funded research is generally considered trustworthy and as a benefit for the public good. Still, that view is not universal. I have been accused of “taking government funding” for my research (which is funded entirely from government sources: DOE, NIH, USDA, and NSF). The person asking clearly felt that the US government was not to be trusted and therefore the research funded by the US government was not to be trusted. But what is the alternative, would my research be of a higher quality if it was funded by industry or non-profits?

Truly we would be paralyzed if all research associated with money was viewed as faulty.

And that goes for industry-funded and non-profit funded research as well. If Pepsico were to sneak in a blog under the pseudonym “Healthy for Life” touting the health benefits without any disclosure of the source of funding and salary, this would be obvious trickery. Similarly if a non-profit is funded by a company selling products for homeopathy and does not disclose this when blogging about homeopathy, this would also be a problem. This kind of stuff does go on all the time and we certainly do not want it on Scienceblogs.

However, if we can clearly see that the Food Frontiers blog is sponsored by Pepsico by a banner stating so, then that is full disclosure. Readers can take it or leave it, complain or not, but nothing is hidden.

We can make it even more transparent if the banner “ADVERTORIAL” is a bolder color combination with a larger font so viewers cannot miss it. Also, I suggest that we simply indicate “this blog was paid for by the sponsor” directly under “ADVERTORIAL”. That will make it very, very clear. Other good ideas have come in as well such as keeping the sponsored blogs fully separate. But what if one of the current Sciencebloggers leaves his/her university position to start their own company based on some of their university research?

If this is disclosed, would the blogger need to leave Scienceblogs because of the source of funding is different or is it simply sufficient to indicate the new source funding? If industry-funded research is not supported, who will take basic science inventions to the market?

After all this, I am even more interested in seeing what Pepsico has to say. Will they provide science-based information? Can such a company make a profit if they no longer sell sugary drinks? Will they actually make this move ? Can we bloggers help in this regard? It will be fascinating to see how this turns out. Many aspects of our food system need to be changed, perhaps this is a start. And if not, what have we lost? Just some reading and writing time.

In the pursuit of keeping Scienceblogs and other media dedicated to publishing science-based information financially stable, I support exploring different models of funding. I am glad to be a part of Scienceblogs. I dont mind if there is a flare-up now and then, especially if problems that come up can be resolved quickly. It is a great place to blog.

Comments

  1. #1 brand0con
    July 9, 2010

    This was hands down the most level-headed response to the Pepsico kerfuffle on the Sb network. To be anything but ambivalent, cautious, and waiting to see what FF fleshed out to be, is shortsighted by readers and bloggers alike. Blog networks (like this one) should be exploring more routes like this for financial support and we should expect moves like this in the future, albeit with a tweaked introduction. It’s a shame FF has already been ousted. Congrats to the angry mob… I guess.

  2. #2 Ewan R
    July 8, 2010

    Meh, apparently $120,000 is too much, and they aren’t willing to negotiate.

    So don’t hold your breath!

  3. #3 Thomas Hager
    July 8, 2010

    As a biographer of scientists and a writer of science histories, I am struck by the way people here assume that corporate research is suspect, and “individual” research (done, say, by a university scientist) is not. The situation is not that simple. Yes, corporate science is directed toward corporate needs. It is, in this way, more clear-cut and transparent than much non-corporate science research, which often is directed toward less obvious, but equally specific needs (those which match the current funding priorities of the federal government, a given department, a wealthy nonprofit, or the individual researcher him/herself). In other words, every scientist has some sort of agenda. At least with corporate science, I have a pretty good idea what the agenda is. The question here, I think, is less about the difference between corporate and non-corporate science, and more about the soul and purpose of ScienceBlogs. This site is in the process of defining itself, and missteps like the PepsiCo fiasco are part of the process.

  4. #4 Walter
    July 8, 2010

    #10 #12
    Once again I don’t think you understand, not that it matters now. I really do not care who you work for. You can do research for the Umbrella Corporation designing consumer zombies for all I care. There is nothing wrong for someone who works for Pepsi, or any other institution, blogging here if they are doing so as individuals. The problem is corporate blogging, not individual blogging. There is a difference. Individuals are driven by many interests, hidden or obvious. Individuals have agendas, but they can more or less chose that agenda. Corporations do not have that luxury. Corporations cannot chose their agenda any more than sharks can chose to be vegetarians. Corporations are not individuals. Pepsi has the means to own their own blog. If they care about science they can contribute all they want. We believe that religions should distance itself from politics and government because it can twist policies in undemocratic directions. Same for corporations, which are the secular religions of the 21st century, we need areas immune from their influence. Let stop pretending that corporate interest are also my interest. They are not, and they never will be. We are different creatures. This idiotic myth of corporations as just another individual with needs similar to mine is beyond ridiculous.

  5. #5 vera
    July 8, 2010

    “corporate blogs, imo, belong on the websites of those corporations”

    Agreed.
    (Heh.)

    Sometimes, covert and overt overlaps and fuzzes into one another… and I think that is exactly why Pepsi wants a blog here, when they already have one elsewhere.

  6. #6 Ewan R
    July 8, 2010

    Vera – I may just be using my own definition of shill, but I’d always understood it as covert, rather than overt (surely there should at least be a distinction between a covert and overt shill – imo one is clearly different to the other)

    As stated in my post – I don’t really think it’s appropriate for a corporate sponsored blog to appear on scienceblogs, although predominantly due to the way it alters people’s perceptions of all the other blogs here, rather than because it is right or wrong per se – corporate blogs, imo, belong on the websites of those corporations – it’s up to PR folk to either bring people in to read the posts, or to get the information out into the blogosphere some other way to be discussed by preferably non-partisan folk.

    Although if Monsanto want to pay me to screw up their image further and ruin scienceblogs credibility my fee is $120,000 p/a for life regardless of the longevity of the blog (3 days)

    They know how to get in touch – I’m waiting by the phone.

  7. #7 vera
    July 8, 2010

    Ewan, a shill is not only a covert decoy, but also one who acts as a spokesperson or a promoter. I don’t think promoting a company and its agenda is something SciBlogs ought to be doing.

    Do you think that if Monsanto paid you to do a blog here, promoting their interests, that would be appropriate, as long as you stick a disclaimer somewhere?

  8. #8 pam ronald
    July 8, 2010

    hibob: “Their dietician said that studies which correlate diet soda consumption with being overweight are wrong, since correlation is not causation”

    yikes. This is the kind of stuff that does not belong on Scienceblogs. They should be citing studies that show the increase in sugar consumption comes primarily from sugary drinks and then talk about a new vision for their company where they do something completely different. Because that is likely not going to happen, it is best that Pepsico is gone. Bye bye Pepsico

    Welcome back sciencebloggers that we (temporarily?) lost.

  9. #9 Ewan R
    July 8, 2010

    Another issue I have with the whole backlash against this is the (in my mind) misuse of the word “shill” – I was under the impression that your traditional shill acted in the shadows and supported the view of a corporation/promoted a product while pretending just to be an average Jill – Pepsi totally don’t fall into this mold – they state in big ass letters that ‘we are pepsi’ which should be enough to set off most people’s “approach with caution” alarms on any information that makes Pepsi look good (just as my occasional disclaimer on working for Monsanto should make anyone at least check out what I’m saying rather than taking it at face value – having a vested interest in a particular viewpoint doesn’t necessarily make you automatically wrong(taking that approach is essentially an ad hom if I remember my Orac right…), but it does make anything you say worthy of a fact check)

  10. #10 Ewan R
    July 8, 2010

    I’m actually not a big fan of the move – while the science on the blog may be just fine (yet to be established – given the comments they are letting through I’d assume that any scrutiny of scientific claims will appear – and if they don’t I’m sure they’ll appear somewhere) I think that totally corporate run science, particularly by PR people, belongs on the website of the company in question – nothing stops PepsiCo employees (either PR folk or people who just happen to get involved in the discussion because they care about it) coming to scienceblogs to discuss any of the science as and when it comes up – and lets face it, HFCS and other food related issues pop up all the time on a variety of the blogs here. I don’t believe personally that the science is tainted (like any science it should be approached skeptically) but that the general view of corporate science is such that it has the capacity to lose a lot of the readers of scienceblogs who might need some preconceptions about modern food and modern Ag shaken somewhat (like people who believe that Vanda Shiva is anything other than a crank)

    So, not a big fan, not vehemently opposed or altogether for the new blog – but I feel it’s already done more harm than good to scienceblogs purely because of how a lot of people think about corporate science, and I think this should have been utterly predictable.

  11. #11 efren
    July 8, 2010

    Walter, you really shouldn’t practice psychotherapy without a license. How many hundreds of thousands of research scientists in the world work in the private sector? Millions? If all of their work is so horribly tainted, you are going to have a hard time existing without the spoiled fruits of their labor.

  12. #12 Michelle B
    July 8, 2010

    Excellent points raised. Pam, you are too clear-headed! Lol.

  13. #13 Mike Haubrich
    July 8, 2010

    Someone on another comment thread made note that with “Framing Science” is on ScienceBlogs pretty much as Matthew’s public calendar for his “talks” then this move to add Pepsico as a blog is not a large step down in credibility overall.

    I have no intention as a reader to remove the remaining “ScienceBlogs” from my reader, especially as my friend Greg Laden continues to write here. I choose not to boycott as a reader the SciBlings, but I probably won’t read the Pepsiblog.

    I certainly don’t think that this decision of yours to remain at SB harms your credibility, Pamela.

    For an interesting counterpoint that makes this issue truly intriguing, Chris Clarke mentions this:

    If your goal is to better the state of science journalism using the new, more democratic tools available these days, tossing out a century and a half of painfully-worked-out journalistic codes of ethics is not the right place to start.

    My thought is that it is going to be quite similar to health inserts in mags such as Time Magazine, 20 pages of tips sponsored by a pharm that deal with a specific topic. It looked like magazine, but is a large advertisememt.

    National Geographic TV sells time for Infomercials. Does that negate all of their other programming?

  14. #14 Benson
    July 8, 2010

    Walter I respectfully disagree. I’ve been reading Scienceblogs for quite a while and have never felt the need to post here until today. I don’t really have a problem with a scientist from PepsiCo posting on ScienceBlogs, because I understand that they might be posting from a given point of view – which, to be honest, everyone here does.

    Many of the complaints today seem to revolve around this idea that the “purity” of science was somehow ruined because PepsiCo started blogging here, and somehow their reality distortion field was going to cloud my mind with sugary sweetness and render my BS detector moot.

    That is nothing more than an arrogant dismissal of my intellectual capacity to take in data from multiple sources, whether it’s from you, or Sharon, or Rebecca Skloot. And quite frankly, it’s uncalled for thank you very much.

    Your assumption that “Independent scientists contributing to this blog are of a diverse variety. Some had a passionate love of science; others were concerned about political developments, others with health and the well being of others.” is kind of naive. I’m sure most of them have the well being of others at heart, or think they do.

    But in the end, whether corporate or not, all of them have their own agenda to push. And coming from ScienceBlogs, it rankles me more than a “corporate blog” because they push their own agenda while hiding behind the veil of academia, of “fighting the good fight against the evil corporatists.” Think about that every time you read a PZ Myers post heckling religion, or conservatives – neither of which have to do with science, either research or promoting it.

    I agree with another post I read earlier today (can’t remember which blog it was, sorry it’s getting late). ScienceBlogs was doing a pretty good job of shooting itself in the foot long before PepsiCo arrived.

  15. #15 hibob
    July 8, 2010

    “After all this, I am even more interested in seeing what Pepsico has to say. Will they provide science-based information?

    If you’re interested in seeing what Pepsico has to say, why not start reading? After all, this isn’t a new blog, it’s been running since last october over at:
    http://foodfrontiers.pepsicoblogs.com/

    I’ve only read a few of the posts and listened to one of the podcasts, but the model seems to be that actual research only gets mentioned in passing. Pepsi researchers, pepsi researcher credentials, and research conferences funded by Pepsi get mentioned a lot, but damned if they’ll tell you what Pepsi scientists are actually sciencing. What they do like are statements about how Pepsico is hosting/participating in medical conferences, followed by position statements about how Pepsi’s portfolio is becoming more healthy. They like whole grains (they own Quaker Oats).
    Words that return no results when you use the search box at the blog: study, soda, benzene, sucrose.
    I did find some actual science in a podcast about sweeteners. Their dietician said that studies which correlate diet soda consumption with being overweight arre wrong, since correlation is not causation, doncha know. She then proclaimed that diet soda is a great tool for weight management, since in one study diet soda consumption was correlated with weight loss.
    Ha ha.
    Listeners are left on their own to find out which studies on diet soda are being referenced: they’re not much into references, authors, journal names, etc. either.

    Can such a company make a profit if they no longer sell sugary drinks? Will they actually make this move ?”

    No worries. According to the blog, they are planning “to reduce the average amount of added sugar per serving in key global beverage brands, in key countries, by 25 percent by 2020″.

  16. #16 mandas
    July 8, 2010

    No Walter – it is not that we do not ‘understand what is wrong with this issue’, as you so prejudicially put it. We just happen to have a different take on it to you.

    I for one have no problem with the issue for two reasons. Firstly, it will provide funding for the community, which is a good thing. Secondly, it means that Pepsi will be open to scrutiny from a lot of very well educated and scientifically literate people – something that very few commercial organisations are subject to.

    How about you and the others who are threatening to take your bat and ball and go home in a huff stick around and actually read some of the threads on the new site and comment on them. You know – do science!

  17. #17 Walter
    July 8, 2010

    I am very troubled. It seems to me that those defending Pepsi’s move do not understand what it is wrong with the issue. If there is one thing to be learned from science about human behavior is the interior hidden motives that guide our behavior. Independent scientists contributing to this blog are of a diverse variety. Some had a passionate love of science; others were concerned about political developments, others with health and the well being of others. Whatever motives behind their contribution was of their own choosing. Corporate blogging , as well as corporate science, is of another nature all together. Corporate motives are profit, nothing less, and nothing more. This principle guides their science, research, and data interpretation. They have no other guiding principle. This is perfectly valid. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of profit. But this pursuit will inevitably blind its followers from externalities and taint their data gathering and interpretation. This would normally not be a problem if there were other sources of information, a safety net from our own inevitable greed and corporate incompetence. Scienceblogs was such a safety net, until today. Corporations have no other mental mind set than profit. They are not free to choose the motivations behind their actions. To humanize them as individuals and place them as equals to the scientist contributing here is ridiculous. This site is shooting itself in the foot. This is a lowering of standards, and in the long run we all lose. It is a very sad day.

  18. #18 NP
    July 7, 2010

    Thank you for a balanced perspective on the issue. I disagree that the term “Advertorial” needs to accompany each blog post – I think the PepsiCo banner is sufficient disclosure. Depending on the nature of the articles, they won’t necessarily be advertorials.

  19. #19 pam ronald
    July 7, 2010

    Ken,

    “My problem with the Pepsico fiasco is not with the quality of science, nor the source of funding (assuming discloser, of course), the idea of a corporate blog as opposed to a personal blog.”

    Well-put. That is my concern, too. I think we have to see how this rolls out. I think ScienceBlogs has demonstrated that they are taking our concerns very seriously and will respond as needed.

  20. #20 pam Ronald
    July 7, 2010

    #2 “Dr. Vandana Shiva’s work fighting uphill to counter the very products that you and your colleagues help to create”

    mmm… I would be very surprised to learn that Shiva is trying to counter the flood tolerant rice released by my colleagues at IRRI. The 10 varieties of rice have been embraced my farmers in India, Bangladesh, Philippines and Indonesia. And why not? Yields are 3-5 fold higher with this variety during floods and the cost is the same as the older varieties. The work was publicly funded, as is all my work. You are misinformed. Here is some info for you:
    http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/science/01/29/waterproof.rice/index.html

    More on my website:

    http://indica.ucdavis.edu/research/submergence-tolerance

    #3:” There is a big difference between science that is intended to broaden the scope of knowledge and investigate the world, and science whose explicit purpose is to advance a corporate agenda”

    That is why it is critical to indicate who is funding the project and to be evaluate whether or not it is really high-quality, peer-reviewed science or just a bunch of pseudoscience meant to sell the public something. It is simplistic to say that industry-funded research or commercial enterprises focused on profit are bad. What about all those new “Green” businesses springing up? They are trying to advance their own corporate agenda and plan to make a lot of money doing it. And they will if they are truly serving up something useful and their work is adequately regulated and transparent.

    #1. Exactly. The levity is much appreciated.

    #4. I also support those bloggers that are leaving. They have the best intentions and principles.

  21. #21 Ken
    July 7, 2010

    But what if one of the current Sciencebloggers leaves his/her university position to start their own company based on some of their university research?

    If it’s a personal blog, then simple discloser is fine. My problem with the Pepsico fiasco is not with the quality of science, nor the source of funding (assuming discloser, of course), but with the idea of a corporate blog as opposed to a personal blog. If your hypothetical blogger started a company, then had his PR department take over the blog, then I’d have a problem with it in this forum.

    I would enjoy reading a personal blog by one of the Pepsico scientists. I really don’t care about the PR blog of a corporation, and believe that it will have a negative impact on the reputation of personal blogs here.

    It may be very interesting to get quality scientists who work in corporations to blog here, but that’s very different than having corporations blog here.

  22. #22 vera
    July 7, 2010

    There is such a thing as a shill. I am outa here, in support of all the bloggers suspending their activities in response to this… uh, advertorial content.

  23. #23 Asp
    July 7, 2010

    The problem is not how science is funded, the problem is what particular science is out to accomplish. There is a big difference between science that is intended to broaden the scope of knowledge and investigate the world, and science whose explicit purpose is to advance a corporate agenda (which is always, by its very nature, focused on profit, not on research and health and people’s well-being and all other stuff that we – especially lay people like me – rely on science to point the right way towards). This is a big difference. To present this as the issue of where the funding is coming from (and not refer to what this funding is intended for) is misleading.

  24. #24 Anonymous
    July 7, 2010

    I’m not the least bit surprised you would have this opinion. Your work feeds directly into big business looking to capitalize off of poor farmers. The lofty intentions, which I’m sure you have, are not shared by the business side of the equation. Just take a look at Dr. Vandana Shiva’s work fighting uphill to counter the very products that you and your colleagues help to create. I’m sure you know her work, but your readers may not. Those interested can watch a short interview with Dr. Shiva on genetically modified crops here: http://j.mp/atHziq

  25. #25 efren
    July 7, 2010

    What? You are actually going to wait and see what they post at Food Frontiers and assess whether or not it is good science? You are actually going to wait for “evidence”?

    What kind of scientist are you? Your supposed to predict the coming demise of all of science everywhere, categorically dismiss anything that is posted at FF as irretrievably tainted (despite the fact that they haven’t posted anything yet), then threaten to take your toys and go home. You are new to this whole science blogging thing, aren’t you? N00b.