How Do We Deal With a Problem Like the Alcohol Industry? Four Lessons on How to Protect Science Based on Recent Study
Researchers, clinicians, and policymakers generally agree that there is no place for the tobacco industry in public health science or policy. The same cannot be said for the alcohol industry (Marten et al., 2020), even though the industries are deeply connected in multiple ways, including in ownership, control, and political strategy (Bond et al., 2010; Hawkins & McCambridge, 2018; Lesch & McCambridge, 2022). Concerns have been raised for decades about alcohol industry’s scientific activity (McCambridge & Mialon, 2018), yet we do not know much about researcher experiences of encountering the alcohol industry in alcohol science. To fill this gap, the authors interviewed 37 alcohol researchers based in 10 high-income countries. They found that they all had some form of contact with the alcohol industry, whether or not they had sought such contact. Here the authors present four lessons based on their findings that could help protect science from industry interference.
1. There is more to industry involvement in science than simply providing research money
The relationships between researchers and industry existed on a spectrum, ranging from researchers initiating funding requests from the industry to unwanted contacts by industry sources.
- The former includes seeking industry research funding early in one’s career (Mitchell & McCambridge, 2022b).
- This had long-term consequences, where initial funding led to more funding and other opportunities.
- A different kind of relationship ensues when established researchers perform advisory roles, or otherwise do work for industry, which can be paid or unpaid (Mitchell & McCambridge, 2022a).
- In the interview study, most of the researchers who were invited to perform such roles once their career was established described negative experiences and had subsequently ended their associations.
- Toward the other end of the spectrum, researchers who decide to have nothing to do with the industry find this challenging to maintain because of the level of intrusion within science, as the authors found in their recent Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs article (Mitchell & McCambridge, 2022c).
- The industry is extensively involved in surveillance and monitoring of alcohol science, and, for researchers who study the industry or produce findings that are contrary to business interests, harassment can result.
There are, therefore, many ways that industry is involved in science. Any measures to address industry scientific activity must recognize the multiple forms of involvement, not just industry research funding.
2. Guidance for researchers is necessary, but limited
Researchers typically rely on informal conversations with colleagues when making decisions about relationships with industry, to the extent that they call on any assistance at all.
In their study, the authors found that there was a lack of formal guidance—for example, from universities—on how to approach the issues associated with unavoidable contact with industry (Mitchell & McCambridge, 2022c).
Guidance for researchers about contacts with industry should include advice for different career stages and should be evidence based.
The authors are limited, however, by the underdevelopment of research on this topic. They do not know, for example, whether and how far the challenges posed by alcohol industry involvement in science are essentially the same, or whether they have distinct features from the threats posed by other industries. Although stronger guidance will be useful, it can only do so much, because researcher decision-making is shaped by the wider environment in which they work.
3. Conflicts of interest in alcohol research are systemic problems requiring collective solutions
In their study, the decisions researchers made about whether to work with industry were strongly influenced by their research environments. This included the influence of supervisors and other senior colleagues, as well as peer relationships with the industry, particularly early in careers (Mitchell & McCambridge, 2022b).
Limits to public funding, which were viewed by some as a bigger problem in some countries than in others, also influenced decision-making (McCambridge & Mitchell, 2022).
When their careers were more established, researchers described trusting their colleagues who were inviting them to work with the industry as a key part of their decision-making (Mitchell & McCambridge, 2022a).
For researchers who wanted to avoid industry, this was beyond their control to an extent—they reported finding it difficult to know whether industry representatives would be in attendance at scientific and policy-related events (Mitchell & McCambridge, 2022c).
These findings expose the limits of relying on individual researchers to make their own decisions about whether to have contact with the industry.
Environmental problems require collective solutions, and this requires institutional change, including,
- addressing the lack of public funding available for alcohol research,
- how conferences are organized, and
- making explicit the norms that shape public interest research.
4. Open, inclusive debates on conflicts-of-interest issues within and beyond alcohol research are possible and necessary
Debates in the peer-reviewed literature about alcohol industry involvement in science have been controversial and often presented as researchers being either “for” or “against” industry. This has been an unhelpful binary. The reality is more complex, and the researchers interviewed had many views in common, regardless of whether they had worked with the industry (McCambridge & Mitchell, 2022).
Opinions on the topic have changed over the years, and almost all of the interviewees thought that industry scientific activity had been damaging, both personally and more widely.
These findings should help to be optimistic about the ability of the research community to address the problem, even though differences in views remain (McCambridge & Mitchell, 2022). Greater investment in research funding is clearly required to study this underresearched topic, including in low- and middle-income countries.