In Search of . . .

Searching for Bias? Look in the Mirror

“We need a safe space to rethink our assumptions.” This phrase came from a recent summary panel on food environments and obesity prevention. Later, the speaker explained. We need that safe space, she said, because a disproven assumption puts funding at risk. So people are reluctant to speak candidly. It was a stark reminder. The need to fund research is real. And it can be a real source for bias – regardless of funding sources.

But if you think that funding bias is an issue solely for industry-funded research, think again. Bias is human. Reproducible science is an important, and very challenging goal. Funding bias is only one of the issues that stand in the way.

Sponsorship of Nutrition and Obesity Research

In Public Health Nutrition, you’ll find a new analysis of research on the association between nutrition and obesity. Alice Fabbri and colleagues examined funding sources, conflicts of interests, and the scope of research topics. They found no difference in research agendas between industry and non-industry funded studies.

This is just one study, asking a very specific question about bias in research agendas. The point is not that industry doesn’t bring a bias to research agendas. Rather, it seems that the bias might not be distinguishable from other sources of bias. They all deserve our attention.

Bias Against Novelty

In Research Policy, Jian Wang and colleagues attempt to measure novel research. They find a systematic bias that weighs against publication and recognition of novel research. They say:

These findings suggest that science policy, in particular funding decisions which rely on bibliometric indicators based on short-term citation counts and Journal Impact Factors, may be biased against “high risk/high gain” novel research. The findings also caution against a mono-disciplinary approach in peer review to assess the true value of novel research.

Given the dearth of novel research in obesity and nutrition, this concern about novelty is well worth greater attention.

A More Systematic Approach to Reproducible Research

The illustration of threats to reproducible research (above) comes from a “manifesto” for reproducible science by Marcus Munafò and colleagues. It provides a useful reminder. Many issues can get in the way of reliable scientific results. Careful attention to the full spectrum of issues is the only way to ensure scientific integrity. Bias is a human condition that we cannot escape. Only with best efforts can we account for it and get closer to the truth.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman

Click here for the study by Fabbri et al, here for the analysis of novel research, and here for the manifesto by Munafò et al.

In Search of . . . photograph © Edward Conde / flickr

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September 18, 2017