Note: You can read part 1 and part 2 of this three part series also -
Last Thursday, President Obama visited my state’s metropolitan area and noted that unemployment would be much lower if we still had all the teachers, Extension agents, and researchers on payrolls by local, state and federal government that we had years ago.
Despite the polar opinion I read on Obama, the above statement is fact – especially for agriculture. As the taxpayers ask for less taxes, we get less of everything. In our own animal science department at the University of Minnesota, we have less cows, less researchers, less statewide specialists, and less of everything versus decades ago. We do have more technology and equipment, however.
But, compared to 10 years ago, there are at least 5 full-time dairy professor or Extension educator appointments wiped from the books, and who knows how many compared to 50 years ago. I would venture to guess the trend nationwide is very much the same for all of dairy and agriculture, and all but a few emerging fields of science in general.
What happened to all the research?
If you already read Part 1 and Part 2 in this series, you realize the research on fat was done by a land-grant professor at my own University of Minnesota. But as much as we talk about a revolving door in politics, the merry go-round of academia may be worse, and there’s no easy way to solve it.
I’ve been in my graduate program for just 1.5 years now, and in the industry for just over 5 years. It’s easy to see the “it’s who you know” advice play strong in research. Professors sit through often mundane presentations for 8 to 12 hours at a conference (much of it provided by graduate students with bad science, bad presentation skills, or even both). Then companies sponsor dinners and receptions, plan trips to bars and events, or buy suites to events to impress scientists.
Golf outings, sponsored trips to conferences in nice places, and being on retainer can all be par for the course.
In my personal opinion, these “goodwill” gestures aren’t effectively wooing science 95% of the time. For example, buying a low-paid graduate student’s beer won’t alter research results (I hope!). But, the long-term relationships that can develop between researchers and funders can create some steady streams of money through one person’s lab or one university department. A scientist’s job is to challenge the status quo, but if they’re also thinking, “I can’t anger company X, so I better not research Y,” we have a difficult ethics issue.
Companies not the only problem: reputation matters
But it isn’t just corporate and for-profit companies demanding results. USDA and the National Institutes of Health, by far the most prestigious world of research piggy banks, demand results. And, when looking for a solution to a big fat problem (read parts 1 and 2) like a nationwide heart attack epidemic for the country’s most powerful people, they demand results now.
In animal science, “good” results equal a p-value of 0.05, or a 1 in 20 chance that the results are bogus. In other fields, the p-value is much lower (like medicine). But, without a value of 0.05 or less, the research is often worth nothing. I think we’re lucky in dairy science – and especially nutrition – that when we find no difference it relates directly to economic one (you can replace item A with item B in the ration). But in other sciences, and sometimes dairy, if a researcher is setting out to prove something and finds an insignificant difference, they often keep looking or never publish anything.
I think every researcher, no matter how modest, is hoping in the back of their mind that someone like me, a member of the press, will send their message out to more people. Of course, they want it done accurately, but no one gets too upset when their life’s work gets a page in a magazine. Or the front page of a newspaper.
Professors and potential professors are judged on publications. Popular press isn’t rated as highly as peer-reviewed research journals (like the Journal of Dairy Science), but popular press can help the reputation and turn a study into a career. Therefore, we’ve probably found dozens of things through science – like a higher-fat diet – to be beneficial. But depending on the presentation and public relations done by the researcher, even great science could generate no press. However, company-sponsored research is often spread quickly and loudly using the marketing and sales arms of the assistant organization.
That’s the system, today. There isn’t an easy answer to make science better and less biased. There isn’t a way to economically ensure we’re getting it right every single time, and we’re not missing out on answers that already exist. But we can keep improving.
More research coming from bodies like USDA and NIH could help this, but they have their own problems. University funding continues to unravel, so unless we, as taxpayers and private funders, step to the plate and put our money in what we want to support, the system will stay the same. Should the revelations in Teicholz’ book ring true, we’ve been sitting on lies supported by a non-profit but funded by a corporate marketing behemoth for 60 years. What else are we missing, and how do we cut that type of fat?