Welcome to inescapable conflict of interest.

Today ScienceBlogs launched a new sponsored blog, Food Frontiers. The sponsor is PepsiCo. Here's the description of what the blog is going to be about from its inaugural post by Sb overlord Evan Lerner:

On behalf of the team here at ScienceBlogs, I'd like to welcome you to Food Frontiers, a new project presented by PepsiCo.

As part of this partnership, we'll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo's product portfolio, we'll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

In June, I had the pleasure of meeting Pekka Puska, president of the World Heart Federation -- we'll be hearing from him on this blog, as well as other global leaders in nutrition research, in every context ranging from government, to academia, to industry. PepsiCo's research team draws from all of those branches: Dr. Mehmood Khan, PepsiCo's Chief Scientific Officer, served as the director of the Mayo's Clinic's endocrinology and nutrition clinical trial unit, and Dr. George Mensah, PepsiCo's Vice President of Global Nutrition, was the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Cardiovascular Health Program for almost a decade.

We have some exciting things planned for this project, including a video series that will begin with a look at the role the food industry plays in health issues, and how industry research into chemistry, physiology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, medicine, and nutrition can improve health outcomes around the world.

Meanwhile, the description in the blog's Profile in the left sidebar says:

PepsiCo's R&D Leadership Team discusses the science behind the food industry's role in addressing global public health challenges. This is an extension of PepsiCo's own Food Frontiers blog. All editorial content on the blog is overseen by ScienceBlogs editors.

Immediate reaction to this blog launch indicates that the reception will not be warm.

PalMD writes:

While the various bloggers under the ScienceBlogs banner are independent of Sb and of each other, there is certainly a penumbra of association. We all may benefit from good publicity, and we may be harmed by bad publicity, even if it comes from other blogs in the network. Given that we may benefit from good publicity generated by the network, it could be argued that we bear some responsibility when we don't speak out against bad practices on the network. ...

PepsiCo's PR flacks basically own a the center column content on one of our blogs.  This is not only a fundamental conflict of interest, it's also deceptive.  If PepsiCo is providing the content, it should, in my opinion, be clearly labelled as advertising.  It could be argued that since it is clearly announced that the content is PepsiCo's, that transparency is maintained, but it's not.  Readers of the other 70-odd blogs at Sb expect independent content in the center column.  What's more, Sb is indexed by Google News.  As a news outlet, we should be held to a high standard.  If the SEED management can't see what's wrong with this, this may be an insoluble problem.

While it looks to me like it's actually PepsiCo's R&D scientists who will be providing the content rather than their PR flacks (and my moment's Google-ing did not turn up any obvious affiliation between Pekka Puska and PepsiCo), I share PalMD's concerns. And, I have no earthly idea what "All editorial content on the blog is overseen by ScienceBlogs editors" means in this particular instance.

Look, I'm sure that the scientist employed to to R&D for PepsiCo are perfectly lovely people, committed to doing sound science for their corporate overlords, but I will bet the farm that none of them will be posting on the Food Frontiers blog to tell us that the healthiest thing you could do with Pepsi-Cola is to pour out a twenty for your fallen homies. (Frankly, I'm not sure I'd even want to do that to my arable land.)

As committed as they might be to scientific integrity, they are working for a corporation that has an interest in selling you stuff. So, they may have lots of ideas about how to make that stuff better for human health, less wasteful of scarce natural resources, less likely to release toxic waste into our environment ... but the problem-space they've been employed to explore does not include the option of "Tell the people that they don't need the stuff we're selling, or that there's no way to indulge in it without killing the planet at least a little."

The PepsiCo R&D scientists who will be blogging about these exciting issues have a conflict of interest. Their relationship with the entity cutting them a paycheck is bound to compromise their objectivity, even if this clouding is unconscious.

If you have strong feelings about the (temporary) addition of Food Frontiers to the ScienceBlogs stable, you might want to send an email to Seed Media Group to share those feelings. You could also try leaving a comment on the Food Frontiers blog (as Chris Clarke did).

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the problem-space they've been employed to explore does not include the option of "Tell the people that they don't need the stuff we're selling, or that there's no way to indulge in it without killing the planet at least a little."
True. But then, I don't expect to hear from you:
"Part of the answer to balancing the CA budget is to toss the CSU system, there's no way to keep it without screwing over the students and the taxpayers at least a little"
"people don't really need academic degrees, and there's no way to get one without killing your soul at least a little" (I have to go over to Zuska's place for that- http://scienceblogs.com/thusspakezuska/2010/06/whats_so_great_about_you…)

See, Zombie Day is all fun and games, until it turns out that the zombie contagion has spread to the folks making decisions for the organization.

My only comfort in all this is that most Sb readers seem to be smart enough to recognize when someone is trying to sell them something.

Becca @2, it's true that we all have our conflicts of interest, actual and perceived. When we're aware of them, we should disclose them and manage them.

(And if there weren't already so many dumb people in the state, I might entertain the wisdom of a major CSU restructuring as a budget-balancing strategy. But we need more barriers to higher education like I need a Pepsi. Which is to say, not at all.)

I for one look forward to seeing the first blog post where the PepsiCo bloggers stray a toetip too close to the line and the smart, educated Sb readers come crashing down on them in the comments.

Popcorn ready.

Janet, you wrote some terrible anti-GMO posts on a previous sponsored blog. So, Id be careful getting to worked up about other people letting their 'biases' cloud their 'objectivity', especially when we have nothing to base that concern on as of yet.

And if dumb people were cured by universities, many groups, congress among them, would operate entirely differently.
I don't really have anything against the CSU system, or really any higher ed. I also don't view all formal education as an unambiguous good, anymore than 'calories' are an unambiguous good.

It may not be the PR flacks writing the blog, but I wouldn't be surprised if every blog post has to be vetted by the PR flacks before it can be posted.

I was at a much smaller company that in its early days had a culture of transparency and allowing individual developers to talk about what they were working on -- but while I was there, we were more and more getting the word that there needed to be a "unified message" coming from the company, or some such, and that we had to be very careful about what we said about anything related to what we worked on to the general public.

The difference between Janet's blog and an officially sponsored corporate blog is that universities have the tradition of academic freedom, where professors can say any damn fool thing they want and the assumption is that they don't necessarily speak for their University. (This is why Michael Behe is still employed, for instance-- he has tenure.) This is extremely different from a blog that is explicitly sponsored by a corporation.

I wonder if Seed is getting a big kickback for this?

I've written down my initial thoughts at my blog: Scienceblogs adds PepsiCo-sponsored blog, sparks debate

A few too many points to summarise here, but two main ones:

- Independence of content is impt for blogs, esp. science blogs

- If you're running a collective, letting the bloggers know of your plans in advance and communicating with them is perhaps a good idea? (I donât want to create any fuss in writing this, but I wonder if a little discussion in advance might have helped.)

While I personally think this kerfuffle is much ado about very little, the fact that it was entirely predictable does raise a baffling question:

How did the Overlords so badly misread their own community? Do they even bother to read ScienceBlogs?

By Neuro-conservative (not verified) on 06 Jul 2010 #permalink

I think it's a joke...or a dumb-ass experiment in social dynamics to see how the critically-thinking (presumably) community reacts.

If it's not a joke or a dumb-ass experiment, I still think that most people won't pay attention to it; I certainly won't. My interest in these blogs is specific...I like volcanoes, I like discussion on the culture wars, I like PZ's frank and open fearlessness in calling morons out, and I especially like discourse on the ethical and moral issues of the day, with respect to research, education, and other things that I deem important. Yes, food is important, but it's not something I'm interested in examining critically because irrational though it may be, no amount of information (either unbiased or spinned) is going to change my behavior regarding what goes in my mouth. And I go to all sorts of lengths to minimise my exposure to advertisment; I download my television shows (still legal in Canada) so I don't see commercials, and I use very effective advertisement-blocking software for my browser.

I imagine I'm not alone in consciously reducing my exposure to advertisement, and I am here specifically because I can think critically and want objective opinions from experts in various fields. Furthermore, when I see someone on SB post something that I find less than plausible, I will check it out. The internet is so wonderful because there is no one authority that tells us what is and isn't anymore; critically-examined consensus and even actual statistically significant data is at our fingertips (though I really think access to the scientific journals in which taxpayer-funded research is published should be available to the general public and not just scientists and university students...wikipedia summaries are good and all, but I hypothesise that conspiracy nuts would decrease if they could actually see the science that debunks their conspiracy - hey! we should test that!).

Assuming not all of us are good scientific citizens, the Pepsi blog should have its logo at the top, and watermarked down the central column, say...every 200 pixels. That way, nobody gets duped.

But it's probably a joke...possibly...okay, maybe not. Dammit!

By VolcanoMan (not verified) on 06 Jul 2010 #permalink

We can also not give them traffic.

I emailed seed, I'm going to withhold commenting on the pepsi blog for now.

In a bit of pollyanna-ish behavior, perhaps it's a good thing to think about all the inevitable COI we deal with daily and how we resolve them.

Is Seed getting a "big kickback for this"? No, they are getting upfront money to let PepsiCo buy a sponsored blog just like they have in the past, with other corporate sponsored blogs. I am still trying to figure out why this corporate sponsored blog is way more offensive to everyone than all the previous ones, and why it surprises anyone that Seed Media Group needs to pay its bills somehow. It's not like SMG has asked all its bloggers to allow PepsiCo to coblog with them, or to alter our own blog content, or to put ads in our blog posts, or to stop saying mean things about sugared beverages, or to be sure to every so often write a blog post highlighting the refreshing sensation we get when quaffing a PepsiCo beverage and how it improves our blogging (the caffeine! the caffeine!) We aren't even required to mention that the new blog exists and yet here we are all doing so anyway.

In my post on this, I have tried to draw parallels between what I see as SMG's situation and what Ms Magazine went through in the years when it still accepted advertising. If you are not 100% supported by subscriptions and donations, you have got to have ad revenue, and in tightened economic times and limited ad revenue opportunities - and don't we bloggers complain about what kinds of ads we do and do not want to see around our blogs? - those responsible for bringing in the $$ are going to get creative about marketing, and about chatting with those with the ad dollars about selling the product here, which is space next door to the creators of the words and credibility. I'm not saying I'm in love with it, just that I have a pretty clear understanding of why PepsiCo's blog is there. And anybody who doesn't like it ought to be prepared to think of other revenue streams that are less offensive but equally remunerative.

All that said - it was launched in about as crappy a manner as possible, with no notice to the bloggy staff, and not "framed" appropriately for the site, though some of that latter stuff is being addressed now. Bly & Co. could take a lesson from Ms. about how to work collectively and with transparency to produce an ethical product and not sacrifice integrity (or as little as possible) when one still needs to rely on ad revenue.

Bill @14, I wrote two posts for the Invitrogen-sponsored blog about GMO:

Genetically modified organisms: a more complex engineering problem than you bargained for?
Look for the GMO label.

And I wrote two other posts for that blog:

Biodefense and common sense.
Attacking and defending.

If I had to guess, I would guess that the views I expressed about GMO (and perhaps biodefense) would be some distance from the official corporate position of Invitrogen. However, since no Invitrogen employee (or Seed Media Group employee) exerted any editorial influence over these posts, I couldn't say for sure.

Do you think your nonscience (if not anti-science) bias against GMOs is okay because it lacked 'corporate influence'?

Is your bias okay because you arent paid to hold that anti-science bias, but Pepsis scientists (thus far non-existant) bias is bad because they are employed by Pepsi (even though their science might be sound)?

I wrote two posts for the Invitrogen-sponsored blog about GMO:...
And I wrote two other posts for that blog:

Yes, but I'm having some trouble identifying the "terrible" ones. Which were those?Or will we have to wait for Abbie to come back and advise us on that too?

ERV @16, I was invited to participate in the Invitrogen-sponsored blog (by Seed, not Invitrogen) in my capacity as an ethicist. That's the perspective I was writing from in those posts (which I would characterize as cautious about GMOs, not "GMOs are evil!!"). And, the ethical consideration includes more than just the details of the science. Is it your view that taking account of these other considerations makes a discussion of GMOs anti-science?

As far as bias, of course I have a bias. So does a R&D scientist from PepsiCo. So do you. On the Invitrogen-sponsored blog, there were four (or maybe five) of us contributing posts from different professional and personal perspectives. The benefit of this set-up is that readers were more likely to see our different biases bumping up against each other -- which would help expose those biases for them (and for us writing).

If Invitrogen had instead chosen four or five of its employees to write the blog, or handpicked the bloggers for the blog, or exercised editorial control of what the bloggers could post on the blog, it's less clear that the same range of perspectives (and biases) would have been on display. And, I reckon, it would have been a pretty boring conversation.

I find Janet's musings far more scientific than I do the exhibition of some imbecilic twit's abs as a demonstration of an unspecified something about the products of PepsiCo, personally.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 08 Jul 2010 #permalink

Janet, the biotech blog seems to have disappeared. Is there any other way I can see the posts you have written there? Thank you.

Vera @20, I will ask the Sb overlords (at least to get copies of them myself so I can post 'em here for those who would like to inspect my biases on display).

Big reading comp fail, abby. Where is the hypocrisy? Janet expresses an opinion on a blog. Lovely. How is that in any way related to the current problem?

What you fail to allow yourself to realize (I'm assuming you're capable) is that this is not a problem with Pepsi---it's a problem with SMG. They fucked up. They betrayed the trust of their bloggers and readers by thrusting at us ad content disguised as regular blog content. Is has nothing to do with Pepsi as a company, or with your obsession about how people feel about GMOs.

And it certainly isn't a "class" issue regarding Mountain Dew use.

But DrugMonkey, the abs are so near the gut, where the seat of truthiness resides!