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The revelation that industry-funded research at Harvard in the 1960s downplayed the deleterious effects of sugar has put Harvard in a bitter position in the news.
The New York Times reported Monday that three Harvard scientists in the 1960s accepted roughly $50,000, in today’s terms, from the sugar industry to publish a review that minimized the relationship between consuming too much sugar and being diagnosed with heart disease. Documents uncovered by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, implicate a trade association then known as the Sugar Research Foundation, and the 1960s Harvard researchers, all deceased, the Times reported.
Other media outlets, including the Boston Globe, the Huffington Post, and Bloomberg.com, quickly picked up the Times’s story.
Walter C. Willett, the current chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Department, said that flaws in research and publication standards plagued the 1960s case. He added that the episode further brought to light the dangers of industry funding.
“The dangers of industry funding are much clearer now,” Willett said. “Industry can basically distort the body of literature.” One of the implicated researchers from the 1960s was chair of Harvard’s Nutrition Department, according to the Times.
Willett said he sees the issue with the sugar research—published in 1967—as two-fold: problematic funding models and inadequate disclosure of industry-researcher ties. Industries can create bias by funding small, weak studies, downplaying the better, publicly funded research, Willett said.
“The funding part is… much more complex, because it’s not a totally black-and-white situation,” he said. “That’s really an important societal issue. If we really want minimally-biased scientific research, we really need more public funding for research, and that’s declining.” Recent budget cuts by Congress have led to dips in public funding for research at Harvard.
“Especially in today’s environments there’s been a reduction, a big decrease, in public research support,” Willett said. “So that puts many researchers in a difficult position.”
Willett also said the standards of publication that allowed the 1967 review to run in the reputable New England Journal of Medicine would not pass muster today. “There were no standards, really, at one point of time,” he said, adding, that since the article was a review of published studies, rather than a study in its own right, “that makes it even more sensitive.”
“Things have changed a lot both for institutions, like the School of Public Health, but also for the journals, [who are the] gatekeepers for disclosure,” Willett said.
In terms of the 1967 review’s findings, though, while the UCSF paper and subsequent media coverage seem to imply that either high sugar intake or too much fat predicated heart disease, the picture is far more complex, Willett said.
“This recent paper tried to portray it as one or the other, one-dimensional thinking for not a one-dimensional problem,” he said.
Willett said that the 1967 report’s evaluation of polyunsaturated dietary fat was “right on target,” although that report did not discuss trans fat, which scientists now know also contributes to cardiovascular disease. And the sugar-versus-fat debate—started in the 1960s and implied by the UCSF findings—seemed to imply that one or the other was the culprit, he added.
“Both sides were on the right track in the 1960’s publication, and it is clear that the causes of cardiovascular disease, and most major health problems, are multi-dimensional,” Willett added in an email.
—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.
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