Carbs, lies and money

MacDonald has been forced to defend the role of scientists in the health issue
MacDonald has been forced to defend the role of scientists in the health issue

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A life in the public eye wasn’t something Professor Ian MacDonald thought he had signed up for after starting his academic career. Recently, though, he’s had to deal with reporters on his doorstep and damning criticism in the national press, Nicholas Robinson discovers why.

Key points

Dodgy experiences with journalists in the past have made Professor Ian Macdonald very nervous about interviews. In fact MacDonald, who is head of life sciences at the University of Nottingham, is so wary of journalists, he makes several references throughout our interview about his lawyers and past legal battles.

His legal feuds, although exciting, haven’t resulted in headlines in the national press, though. His recent work as the chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s (SACN’s) working group on carbohydrates and his links with the food and drink industry, however, have.

As early as 2013 and as recently as February this year, MacDonald and his colleagues came under fire for advising the government on public health, while receiving funding from industry. Publications including the British Medical Journal (BMJ), The Guardian and other nationals, have all claimed scientists’ opinions on health are marred by the work they do with industry.

This is possible, MacDonald openly admits, but isn’t something he or his SACN colleagues are guilty of, he hastily adds. “People think that, if you have research funding from industry, then, in very simple terms, you’ve been bought.

“They think you’re receiving honoraria or other financial inducements in order to put their arguments first,” ​he says in a distinctly calm and measured way.

In defence of himself, MacDonald says: “I do not provide a mouthpiece for anyone. I am nobody's mouthpiece other than my own (and SACN’s), and that’s after I’ve carefully reviewed the science behind an opinion.”

Of his SACN colleagues, he adds: “Certainly, the committee has a lot of independent spirits on it, there's no way the chair could tell the committee what to do or what to think.”

Although MacDonald passionately rejects any wrongdoing himself, he sympathises with the origins of his critics’ accusations. There are examples of industries manipulating scientists and what they do with their research, he points out. Much of this had happened in the tobacco industry, he claims.

“Everyone keeps harking back to tobacco and the manipulation of the evidence and the economic pressure that the tobacco companies exerted on scientists for a long time,”​ MacDonald explains. “This was done to ensure the damning evidence about the bad health effects of tobacco remained hidden, to make it difficult for government to legislate against.”

At the same time, academic and science writers, such as Dr Ben Goldacre, who writes The Guardian ​Bad Science column, are making similar arguments against the drugs industry.

Goldacre has hit out against several drugs companies recently, claiming that they are hiding crucial evidence about the ill-effects of certain drugs. Since the food industry is closely linked with the drugs sector, it doesn’t take long for similar accusations to be made about it, claims MacDonald.

Outrageous accusation (Return to top)

People will talk and make links, he adds. “It’s guilt by association and they will assume that, if something is happening in one industry, then it will happen in another.”

However, it’s not an outrageous accusation to make, which MacDonald explains when asked if he’s aware of any scientists working with the food industry who have something to hide.

“I’ve seen examples in the dental profession,”​ he claims. “It’s difficult to say without being obvious about whom one is talking about, but there’s a dental professional who had links with the food industry and didn't declare them while commentating on dental health.”

MacDonald refuses to name the individual involved, but says the person was potentially influenced by their links with industry. And, because they didn’t declare them, it made that person appear guilty.

Generally, having links with industry isn’t a problem, says MacDonald, who has collaborated with companies including: Nestlé, the Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Baxters and more recently, Mars. But, those links must be declared when you're advising the government on public health, he makes clear.

While he was chairing SACN’s Carbohydrates and Health report, which is due to be published this month (July), MacDonald, who has been on the committee for nine years, cut his ties with industry, he says.

“But, the officials at Public Health England agreed that it would be appropriate to restart those links. I made it clear to the companies I was working with that I couldn’t provide advice on carbohydrates and they have honoured that.”

Whether or not he had ties with industry at the time he was working on the SACN report wouldn’t make a difference to his critics, he adds. The BMJ’s stinging attack on MacDonald and his colleague Susan Jebb, chair of the government’s Responsibility Deal food network, in February is an example of that.

The BMJ article claimed to disclose evidence of the “extraordinary extent to which key public health experts are involved with the sugar industry and related companies responsible for many of the products blamed for the obesity crisis through research grants, consultancy fees and other forms of funding”.

Questioned independence of SACN (Return to top)

It questioned the independence of SACN members and shone a light on the financial backing they had received from food and drink companies, such as Pepsi, Mars and Nestlé. It particularly attacked Jebb, who had received more than £1.3M of industry funding, it claimed.

Jebb defended herself and fared worse than MacDonald in the BMJ’s criticism, he admits. But he’s had it just as bad. An article written by The Guardian’s health editor Sarah Boseley in 2013 highlighted all of MacDonald's links with industry and questioned whether or not such a scientist could offer a fair opinion on public health.

In March last year a Daily Mail reporter showed up on MacDonald’s doorstep looking for comment about his links with industry and his SACN work. “I don’t know how he managed to track me down, but I guess it’s not that difficult these days,”​ he explains.

“He wanted comment. Luckily I didn’t hear the door and my wife answered and sent him away.”

But, in light of all the criticism they’re likely to receive, why do scientists maintain links with industry if they also want to work with government? Simply, there isn’t enough public funding for them to carry out research, MacDonald explains. As a result of that, much of the research scientists do with industry is pitched by them to companies.

“Scientists will always tell you that there’s never enough funding,”​ he adds. “But, it is pretty tough in terms of funding from the government at the moment anyway.”

Academics are expected to interact with industry – it’s government policy, he claims. It’s one of a university’s key performance indicators “and it’s the only way universities can survive”.

For instance, the University of Nottingham’s engineering faculty receives 75% of its funding from industry, he explains. “This university has strong industry links with the likes of Rolls Royce and Ford,”​ he adds.

Attacks from the press (Return to top)

MacDonald’s department has received funding for research from major food and drink firms, as well as sugar companies, the Ministry of Defence and the government, he says.

Ultimately, attacks from the national press are putting scientists off working with the government to improve public health, he claims: “It will put some off; that’s the problem.

“People who have links with the industry will think that they’re going to be targeted by ​[critics], claiming they’re biased if they work with the government … and then you end up with an unbalanced health debate.”

There’s a fundamental suspicion that industry has undue influence on government, he adds. But, scientists working with industry have a “positive”​ contribution to make, MacDonald argues, such as to the obesity and sugar debate.

“In my position, I am able to tell the industry what it’s doing wrong, when it needs to focus on getting things right and when it needs to help the public to manage their energy intake, their salt, calories and carbohydrates.”

Having an understanding of how industry works could also allow scientists to better explain to government how to implement a plan, such as a sugar reduction strategy, because they know the sector’s limitations.

To ensure things move forward, scientists should try to make it clear to the public how they work, MacDonald suggests. They should also make more of an attempt to explain their science, he adds, and claims there are only a handful of scientists trying to do this at the moment, such as Professor Brian Cox.

“The public and the politicians in this country are a bit ignorant about science,”​ he says. “Some of the things our senior politicians say make you cringe when they are talking about science.”

Future (Return to top)

In the future, if public policy is to benefit from impartial, rigorous science, it will be essential for scientists to be given greater support and backing from government. They need to be able to do their jobs without being subject to unjustified criticism and sensationalist headlines and attacks, he adds.

“At the end of the day, we’re professionals and we’re not in the business of misleading the public,” ​he says. “We’re all working towards better public health – the industry and scientists – and there’s a lot of work going on to show that.”

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