What happened to public trust in science? Is this a crisis for the food system? by Daryl Lund

It has a been a long-standing understanding and belief by the consumer and public in general that laws and regulations are based on sound science. This has been especially true in safeguarding the safety of food. The public has generally been very positive that the work of the Federal Food and Drug Administration has ensured that food is not only safe and healthy but also free of economic adulteration.


Trust in science, particularly as it relates to the food we eat is an important topic today. I have asked Dr. Daryl Lund (Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Madison dblund@wisc.edu) to discuss his work on the topic for this week’s post.


Recently, however, confidence in science has been badly shaken. As this applies to food, consider the revelation that, in 2011, research in support of resveratrol was revealed to have been fabricated and falsified. The result was that several manuscripts were retracted by the journals, the researcher was fired and federal funding for the research was returned to the funding agency. More recently there was the revelation that six papers on research on the relationship between satiety and food consumption were retracted with the professor abruptly retiring. Lest we think this only happens in food research, consider the analysis by a reporter about the reproducibility of psychological research studies. Then, of course, we have an administration (or at least its leader) who questions all scientific conclusions and has downsized several federal departments by removing scientists.

There are at least two strategies for the science community to regain public trust in its findings and reduce or even eliminate public distrust. First, when research is conducted and reported, the public should know of any conflicts of interest or bias by the investigator. Second, the public and the scientific community should have access to the data, methods and interpretation of the data so the research can be reproduced.

For the last 10 years, the North American branch of the International Life Science Institute (ILSI North America) has had a task force examining conflict of interest and scientific integrity in nutrition and food safety research. From its website, “the North American branch of the global International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a non-profit scientific organization that advances the integrity and conduct of nutrition and food safety research and its application for the benefit of public health.” ILSI North America is primarily funded through its diverse food industry membership, and in the interest of transparency, I have been on the ILSI North America Board for the last 10 years during which time I was retired.


The purpose of ILSI North America’s effort was to build a framework to enhance public trust and scientific transparency.  Three major outputs that have resulted from the work of the task force, which is now called the Assembly on Scientific Integrity are:

(1) Guidelines for handling Conflict of Interest in research funded by the private sector which resulted in the publication, “Funding Food Science and Nutrition Research: Financial Conflicts and Scientific Integrity” published simultaneously in six peer-reviewed journals [Nutr Rev, 2009, 67(5):264-272];

(2) Guidelines for forming public-private partnerships not only for research funding but also to enhance private sector-public institution interaction (including federal agencies) resulting in “Principles for building public-private partnerships to benefit food safety, nutrition, and health research”, published in 2013 [Nutr Rev, 2013, 71(10):682-691] and subsequently updated in 2015, “Achieving a transparent, actionable framework for public-private partnerships for food and nutrition research” [Am J Clin Nutr, 2015, 101(6):1359-1363]; and

(3) A resource guide on scientific integrity activities, resulting in the publication “Scientific Integrity Resource Guide: Efforts by Federal Agencies, Foundations, Nonprofit Organizations, Professional Societies, and Academia in the United States” [Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr, 2017, 57(1):163-180]. One of ILSI North America’s latest activities has been becoming a signatory of the Center for Open Science’s Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) Guidelines. The TOP Guidelines provide actionable steps for institutions to practice and promote transparent, reproducible, and rigorous research. By becoming a signatory, ILSI North America is supporting the principles expressed in the Guidelines through their implementation by its funded researchers.

Two principles from each publication illustrate the intent of the principles. In the first publication on conflict of interest, the terms conflict of interest and bias are defined as, “Conflict of interest: A conflict of interest is ‘a conflict between the private interests and the official responsibilities of a person in a position of trust.’ A conflict of interest thus arises when a person has to play one set of interests against another;” and “Bias: From the online Oxford English Dictionary, bias is an “inclination or prejudice in favor of a particular person, thing, or viewpoint.”  Two of the principles included in the document are:

“In the conduct of public/private research relationships, all relevant parties shall:

  1. require control of both the study design and the research itself to remain with scientific investigators;
  2. not offer or accept remuneration geared to the outcome of a research project;

Adopting these principles clearly puts the scientist in control of the research.

Public-private partnerships have been widely used to carry out efforts in the public interest where the data lie in the private sector but are necessary to make public policy such as regulations and laws or make the data available in the public interest. In formulation of a framework for public-private partnerships, the group recognized an over-arching prerequisite principal, governance principles, and operational principles. Here are the prerequisite principle and a governance principle:

“Prerequisite principle

  1. Have a clearly defined and achievable goal to benefit the public.

Governance principles

  1. Articulate a governance structure including a clear statement of work, rules, and partner roles, responsibilities, and accountability, to build in trust, transparency, and mutual respect as core operating principles—acknowledging there may be “deal breakers” precluding the formation of an effective partnership in the first place.”

The third output of the ILSI North America effort was monumental in that it reviewed the guidelines and rules that organizations now practice to ensure scientific integrity. The analysis included Federal Agencies, Foundations, Nonprofit Organizations, Professional Societies, and Academic Institutions in the United States. One of the activities cited included the work of the Center for Open Science’s Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) Guidelines.  ILSI North America considers the standards in the TOP Guidelines essential for promoting rigorous and reproducible research; as of July 1st, 2018, all of its funded researchers must adhere to the standards. Current efforts by the Center for Open Science are for all research institutions and journals to implement these standards in the work they fund or publish.

The efforts of ILSI North America and cooperating agencies and institutions are intended to increase the public’s trust in science and scientific data generated in support of the public’s health and well-being. That trust is essential to have policy based on science.

Note that these comments are a personal statement of Daryl Lund and do not necessarily represent the positions of ILSI North America.

Daryl Lund, Professor Emeritus of Food Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison, earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1968 in Food Science and Chemical Engineering. His research interests in food engineering included fouling and cleaning in food processing operations, kinetics of food quality and nutrient changes in foods, microwave-assisted food processing operations, and optimization of product quality.  He served as department chairman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Rutgers University (1984-87 and 1988-89, respectively), and as Dean of the College of Agricultural and Related Sciences at Rutgers University and Cornell University (1989-95 and 1995-2000, respectively).  He was the Executive Director of the North Central Regional Association of State Agricultural Experiment Station Directors from 2001 until his retirement in 2007. 

Dr. Daryl Lund is contributing author to more than 200 scientific papers, editor or co-editor of five books, co-author of a major textbook, and received numerous professional awards and honors including the 2009 Nicholas Appert Award from the Institute of Food Technologists, the lifetime achievement award in 2011 from the International Association of Engineering and Food, and in 2016 the lifetime achievement award from the International Union of Food Science and Technology. He served as President of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology (2010-2012), as Editor-in-Chief of the Institute of Food Technologists’ peer-reviewed journals (2003-2012), as chair of the Distance-Assisted Training Program of the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST) (2002-present), and as chair of the IUFoST Scientific Council (2014-2016). 



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