On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Many Factors Slow Down Scientific Research

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I have arthritis, and except for pain relief, medical science has been unable to help me so far. I have heard of herbal supplements that could help, but when I bring up the topic with my medical doctor, I get a blank stare and rejection. Why is there always plenty of information on drugs, but precious little on alternatives? Science seems to move way too slowly when investigating new concepts, and hardly at all when investigating herbs. -- S.T., Oakland, California

DEAR S.T.: Funding is a key factor in determining what gets studied, since many scientists depend upon research grants from federal and private institutions to keep their laboratories in operation. These monies, from which a university takes a cut for its operating expenses, cover items such as salaries of research assistants, equipment and other costs connected with the research. Grant applications include a collection of the theories, preliminary findings and previous publications assembled in a format dictated by the funding agency. There are always more requests than money, and once submitted, funding agencies review and prioritize the applications. If a request receives a low funding priority, the applicant must look elsewhere for their research dollars if, indeed, “elsewhere” exists.

The big picture associated with this sobering reality is that we must maintain a pro-research stance and keep funding coffers flush if we want to foster scientific advances. It also helps explain the generally conservative nature of science. When new frontiers are considered, initial results may not be clear. This might lead to a reluctance to investigate new ideas. If a scientist cannot secure research funds, it limits the progress of their research efforts. This delays experimental results and the completion of scholarly publications, both of which can affect their ability to attract grants in the future.

Equally important is the need for researchers to show progress at their institution. In essence, a new professor can find themselves without secure employment (tenure) if they don’t publish. Aware of this reality, some scientists focus their research on topics with a higher likelihood of financial support. In some instances, funding can come from private sources, earmarked for particular types of research. Given that private funders are less likely to support research that makes them or their products look bad, it’s not surprising that research reporting beneficial effects from a food or product has been supported by companies involved with that substance.

The source of the funding does not automatically compromise the integrity of the research. This would more likely be the case when studies are conducted at a major university, as they tend to have policies that prohibit funding agencies from exerting overt pressures on the conduct of the research and how the findings are reported. That’s the ideal, at least. There’s additional assurance if the results appear in a quality peer-reviewed journal, as this would signify that the findings have been critically examined by other experts in the field.

It is also important that breakthroughs are then confirmed by independent researchers at other institutions. All this is meant to provide perspective on why research tends to move slowly with new theories, trends or products.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.