The bounty of research funding provided by companies such as Coca-Cola to universities and elsewhere may come with some major strings attached, according to an investigation out Tuesday. The paper’s authors describe evidence of Coca-Cola crafting research agreements with universities in the U.S. and Canada that allowed the company to end studies at its whim, as well as evidence of scientists involved in these studies feeling stifled by the beverage company.
Coca-Cola and other soft drink companies have faced plenty of criticism from public health workers, as the consumption of sugary, calorie-filled drinks like soda and fruit juice is increasingly linked to health problems including obesity and type 2 diabetes. The public health blitz against Big Soda has seemingly started to work, with declining U.S. sales of soft drinks for more than a decade.
Following the playbook created by the tobacco industry, though, Coca-Cola and other beverage companies have provided funding to public health initiatives intended to study and combat the problems they helped cause, including through research grants.
Researchers and industry critics have condemned these financial gifts, however, pointing to studies showing that industry-funded research shockingly tends to favor the industry’s arguments—for example, in Coca-Cola’s case, that a lack of physical activity and other factors besides drinking soda should bear more blame for rising rates of obesity, or that anti-obesity policies should focus more on getting kids to exercise.
Coca-Cola, in response to these critiques, has pledged for years that its funded research would all be above board. In 2016, it released a list of researchers it had funded since 2010, and promised these researchers had full control of their study’s design and data analysis; that they were encouraged to publish their research; and that the company did not have the right to prevent the publication of any research, regardless of what was found. Any grants it provided, the company added, would be unrestricted in how they were to be used.
The researchers behind the current investigation, published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, decided to see if Coca-Cola was keeping its word. Hailing from the UK and Italy, the researchers enlisted the help of U.S. Right to Know, a consumer advocacy group that regularly criticizes the food industry. On their behalf, the organization filed 129 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests between 2015 to 2018 to publicly funded universities and researchers that had received known or likely Coca-Cola research grants.
From the more than 80,000 pages of documents eventually collected, the team found five research agreements between the company and four universities in the U.S. and Canada: Louisiana State University, the University of South Carolina, the University of Toronto, and the University of Washington. The studies set to be produced through these collaborations involved examining how calorie intake and physical activity affected weight gain in young adults.
The agreements did all explicitly state that Coca-Cola wasn’t allowed to interfere with any of the studies’ design, data analysis, or publication. But they also contained language that allowed Coca-Cola to look at research before it entered the publication process and offer comments on it; the ability to terminate a study early for no given reason; and in some cases, the right to seize at least some of the data collected by the scientists.
They also found an instance of one researcher complaining in an email that the company had terminated his team’s research project without giving any explanation, and another instance of a researcher complaining that certain provisions of his contract with Coca-Cola (eventually renegotiated) were “very restrictive for an ‘unrestricted grant.’”
The authors are careful to note that they found no direct evidence of Coca-Cola terminating a study because it didn’t like the results, and the findings don’t provide a complete picture of how Coca-Cola or other companies interact with their research partners. But according to Gary Ruskin, a study co-author and co-director of U.S. Right to Know, the real problem is that, despite its promise, Coca-Cola still has the ability to influence and quash unfavorable research it has funded—and there’s no real way to tell if it has done so.
“Public health depends on having a robust knowledge of studies. And if companies like Coca-Cola are secretly killing studies and there’s no trace of them, then any knowledge that might be important for public health also gets killed,” Ruskin told Gizmodo. “The paper shows they have the power to do that, and it should be alarming.”
This is hardly the first piece of evidence to suggest that Coca-Cola’s professed good intentions for funding research aren’t completely on the level. A report in the BMJ out this January found that the company had been quietly influencing China’s public health policies on obesity for years, including by throwing conferences filled with industry-funded scientists who promoted the idea of exercise being essential to fighting obesity (in reality, exercise is great for keeping you alive and healthy, but not really for shedding pounds). In 2015, the company abandoned a front group it had created to advance similar research, following an investigation by the New York Times.
In a statement sent to Gizmodo, Coca-Cola said it had revamped its research funding practices. The company touted its disclosure of research partners, and added that in 2017, it had stopped funding studies—either through the company itself or third parties—entirely with its own money alone.
“We agree research transparency and integrity are important,” the company said. “Research funded by The Coca-Cola Company and disclosed on our site is expected to be conducted in accordance with our publicly stated approach to funding scientific research, including the fact that we do not have the right to prevent the publication of research results nor do we provide funding conditioned on the outcome of the research.”
But Ruskin and the other authors argue that much more transparency is needed from the company and from industry in general, and that academic journals shouldn’t be afraid to demand it.
“There’s a lot of things that should be done. For one, journals ought to require the disclosure of research agreements with corporate funders. Secondly, there ought to be more scrutiny and skepticism of research funded by Coca-Cola, because it’s more like public relations than science. And there ought to be a registry of industry-funded studies that were terminated, so that public health researchers can have a sense of what was killed and why,” he said.
The study’s findings, Ruskin added, also highlight just how little we know about the potential effects that corporations like Coca-Cola have on our understanding of science.
“So much of our public health and nutrition policy is funded by corporations. But without the disclosure of those research agreements with these funders, none of us—journalists, researchers, policymakers, the general public—can properly assess the corporate influence on those papers.” he said.