Conflict for NIH Funded Bloggers

Jul 07 2010 Published by under Blogging, Ethics

Greg Laden raises a decent question* amid the PepsiBlogs kerfuffle what with his reflexive need to take potshots at his perceived blog enemies and all .

Somewhere in the middle are blogs written by scientists at MRU's who are mostly funded by some major single source (NIH, Big Pharm, ... maybe even Pepsico???) but who, since they are either indy or pseudo, are different than a corporate sponsored blog.

I'm pretty sure I'm the blogger that takes the most heat for NIH funding conflict of interest, because of my topic domain. I'll have to dredge up the links later because they are not overwhelmingly common.
The charge comes from people who don't like my comments about the possible health risks of recreational drugs, most typically when I am talking about cannabis. It comes in two basic flavors.


The ranty flavor is that all scientists funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse are nothing more or less than shills for a vast right-wing prohibitionist conspiracy against harmless potsmoking. Shills who do nothing other than fake up research findings to insult the sacred weed, because of course the critics already know pot is totes harmless.
The more thoughtful flavor is the one that suggests that we scientists who are funded by NIDA are not craven, per se. Rather that our allegiance to dependence on a funding agency which is dedicated to finding health risks of recreational drugs has an influence.
And this one should be taken seriously by all of my readers. I agree.
It is no accident that the profile description of this blogger has always said front and center that I am "NIH funded". I do not do this to brag or establish cred with the audience that comes for the grant-game posts. I anticipated exactly this sort of concern with respect to my comments on drug abuse science topics. I consider this one of the limitations of pseudonymous blogging, i.e., that biases and conflicts are much less readily apparent. Obviously, I've struck my balance.
In my disclaimer tab on the header row, I further emphasize that:

many of the topics under discussion are those for which DrugMonkey may have previously held, currently holds or is actively seeking to hold NIH funding to investigate.The reader is encouraged to read DrugMonkey postings with this in mind.

I have been known to include this on specific posts as well.
The question of the day for you DearReader: Is this enough?
Are you like Laden in that you suspect additional malign influence that you could deduce if you just knew a little more about my research funding? What would you need to know? The topics? The grant numbers? The direct costs and indirect costs? Would that assist you in appropriately calibrating the size of your pinch of salt?
__
*Even a blind squirrel finds the occasional nut. -Anon
Additional reading from Isis the Evil Big Tobacco Funded Scientist

14 responses so far

  • Dirk Hanson says:

    As a regular reader of this blog, I think that the current disclaimer is sufficient. I don't think further caveats with respect to each and every post are at all necessary. However, I will tender my usual pro forma plea for you to step forth and shed your anonymity, unless doing so would be certain to compromise your ability to post, or endanger your job in some way.

  • Anonymous says:

    I don't know for sure but think you've missed his point. He's not demanding accounting files down to your last penny. He's pointing out the importance of transparency in scientific research and writing.
    Blogs have an agenda. You've defined yours very well and yet (gasp!) you write some insightful posts. šŸ˜‰
    It just seems that ranting at the Pepsico blog simply because they have an agenda, are a corporation and might be shills is like ranting at a puddle of water because it is wet, has a muddy bottom and might cause mold.
    Now, the increasingly obvious notion is that ScienceBlogs and Seed media seem to have had little respect for you and your fellow bloggers and now are in emergency "fix-it, fix-it!" mode. The mismanagement of this situation is a completely different kettle of fish.

  • whimple says:

    I don't pay any attention to anything you ever write on drug use/abuse topics. Naturally, the NIDAbuse is never going to fund anything or anyone that ever concludes anything different from South Park's classic, "Mmmmm... drugs are bad, m'k?" Actually, with such a forgone conclusion it's hard to call what NIDA funds "research", but we've wasted taxpayer dollars on worse things. šŸ˜›

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Oh noes! I've been a tobacco shill! Is that the right word? "Shill?" It occurs to me now that I have never written it and I am too lazy to Google.
    Anyway, this shit's not going to pay for itself, right? Someone's gotta pay to keep the lights on and the centrifuges running.

  • bayman says:

    I am only interested in reading blogs from people who are funded by purely objective money. You know, from sources who say, "Hey here's a couple mill, go nuts! Don't care what you do with it, I'd really just like to get it out of my bank account as quickly as possible."

  • ponderingfool says:

    What currently is put on the Frontier Foods under the pepiscoblogs.com domain can be viewed here:
    http://foodfrontiers.pepsicoblogs.com/

  • becca says:

    @Isis- the first elventy times I heard it, I think I read it as "shrill"
    @bayman- your ideas intrigue me. Where shall I subscribe to the newsletter of the purely objective money funding??
    @drugmonkey- those are not the conflicts of interest you have that I am concerned about.

  • Pascale says:

    I am more concerned about Pharma consulting money than that from NIH. And I do consider your current disclaimers sufficient.
    Everything, absolutely everything, one reads must be accompanied by NaCl in varying amounts. Those of us who are "out" online have to be upfront about our associations, but at least doubters can google us. Those using pseudonyms should do more to reassure their readers about undue influence.
    Once again, the final message is always let the reader beware.

  • David says:

    I think that the most pervasive forms of conflict of interest function at the level of constraining the set of questions asked, rather than by affecting findings made during legitimate inquiry or the subsequent interpretation of them. Our society has limited resources to spend on scientific research, so funding bodies rank order them according to priority and assume that scientific research will reflect their sets of biases because of prioritization in grant awarding. Big pharma and the tobacco industry also bias questions asked by offering support for answering certain questions, but not others. Overall, I don't have a great deal of concern about how conflicts influence experiments we DO perform, but rather, how they affect the ones we DO NOT perform.
    Once data is out there - and we are having an open discussion about an item (where arguments can be verified and accepted or dismissed), I think funding-related conflicts are much less important. Indeed, some of the most concerning conflicts have nothing to do with funding or money at all. The bias in an opinion about substance use behaviors associated with being funded by NIDA is insignificant compared to the bias associated with being a closet substance abuser who denies scientific fact to lessen their own distress (or, conversely, of being close to someone who died as a consequence of their addiction). If we are going to require disclosure about NIDA R01s when having a discussion about the problems of substance abuse, we should should at least be aware of the more pervasive effect of biases related to private behaviors that hit much closer to the issue.

  • Greg Laden says:

    Is your misreading of my comment intentional or out of ignorance?
    Just to be clear, I was trying to, and in fact succeeded to any non-reactionary reader (you'd be a reactionary reader, DM) do something quite different than you have implied.
    My assumption is that many science practitioners are funded by someone and thus potentially beholden to someone, and/or work for someone/something that could create a pressure of some kind. I assume that most scientists endeavor to act professionally and ethically despite this context. Maybe even some of the scientists that work for Big Corp R&D. Furthermore (an not always related) blogging practitioners (science bloggers, etc) may be under further scrutiny and if their identity is known, further pressure (thus the pseudos, in many cases, DM being an excellent example of that).
    For this and other reasons I've noted, the legitimate and valued constellation of bloggers represents a wide range of links and connections, and potential conflicts of interest, yet it is by and large managed and by and large does not detract from the value of that blogging or the ethical standing of the bloggers.
    When everyone is acting normally and suddenly a dozen people jump ship and another dozen threaten to do so, it seems like a very large difference has been identified. It's like there is a bunch of kindergarten teachers at a conference and suddenly one is discovered to be a mass murderer. "OMH, Science blawgs, it has a blog that has a potential conflict of interest IEEEEEEEE!!!!"
    Yes, PepsiBlawg is (more than a little) problematic, but the CONTRAST between a world in which there are no potential difficulties and one in which there are is a false one.
    I was not taking a potshot at you. Your blogdar is clogged with bloggy hate. Shame.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Although this isn't exactly what I wanted to explore here, you are intentionally conflating two things in PepsiBlogGate, Greg.
    Many (all?) of us have institutional, social and or personal connections that are not readily on display on the blog.
    PepsiBlog bloggers were coming to Sb explicitly as part of their jobs representing their institution, PepsiCo.
    I think there is a significant difference here and I do not understand why you are working as hard as you can to blur the difference.
    The place where you might have an actual argument is that place where a blogger's personal affiliation IS her institutional affiliation (i.e., to their writing-as-a-career branding).
    As with scientist's disclosures, however, I think these affiliations are quite readily apparent and assumed. Sufficient for a Skloot to have links to her book all over the sidebar to avoid any perception that someone is astroturfing for #HeLa the book.

  • whimple says:

    Not that I really care about the future of blogging, but did Pepsi pay for their blog? Isn't that the definition of an 'advertisement'?

  • Greg Laden says:

    I think there is a significant difference here and I do not understand why you are working as hard as you can to blur the difference.
    I am not working to blur the difference at all. There is a stark line, a real gap, a true difference. As. I. Said. (in many places)
    The real question to me is the one I just posed over on the Pepsiblog (The non-Sb version of Food Fronteirs). What is their process? Does anyone but the scientist writing the blog even see the contents of the post?
    If no one did, that may or may not be meaningful. But if there is any kind of workflow in which the scientist/blogger's material passes through any kind of review, in that sort of corporate setting, then it is not blogging, just marketing.
    There is probably no way to have a corporation "own" a blog at a place like Scienceblogs. That does not mean that corporate based scientists can't have a voice. I think they should have a voice, and there are ways to do it.
    Of course, I don't know why the fuck I'm talking to YOU about it for. You are needlessly but inextricably hobbled by your cliquish ways and can't really have a conversation.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The reason you are talking to me about it is because you don't *really* believe all that paranoid "kleeque" horseshit you spew Greg. I'm relieved that you are not as insane as you pretend at times.

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