By Wendelyn Jones, PhD, Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS)
The first step in supporting evidence-based health decisions is to ensure the research used is viewed as credible. This means the research is reproducible and the data and methods are transparent. This is especially true in the health and food space as major decisions can impact millions of people. Some may demand that you “show me the data” when it comes to backing up decisions that affect them.
Research may be funded by the public sector (government), the private sector (industry), foundations, and other funding organizations. All have their peculiarities and may have reputations for being, say, staid and incremental, or risky but innovative, or perhaps a tad esoteric in focus. And, industry-funded research can be subject to additional scrutiny as a result of various perceived and real biases related to it.
To address this, the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Science (IAFNS) has updated “Guiding Principles” to provide a modernized framework for minimizing bias. As adopted, the principles promote the integrity and transparency of industry-funded research.
The updated principles provide conflict-of-interest guidelines that also protect the integrity of the scientific record. The updates strengthen the guardrails that separate the funding from the science and reflect the science community’s shift toward increased transparency and open science. With these principles in place, the stage is set for disseminating the evidence across all food and health sectors. Confident decisions stem from talented leaders with access to rich evidence streams.
For IAFNS, scientific integrity is centered on our core value of transparency. To ‘walk our talk’ we sought and were awarded the highest “Platinum” level of nonprofit transparency available through Candid (formerly GuideStar).
A few examples of steps we take in pursuit of transparency: we disclose and register funding of studies, pay to make journal articles “free to read,” and post all research results on our website regardless of outcomes. Moreover, we never interfere in the design, collection, or analysis of data or conclusions of the research we support. Finally, a Board Program Committee comprised of majority public-sector members from government or academia must approve all project charters.
So, what are the challenges to being more transparent? How have other organizations grappled with transparency, particularly in the food and science space? Do North Americans have different expectations about transparency for foods and ingredients? Have you strived to increase transparency? What kind of difference has being less versus more transparent made in your organization? Does social media and other forms of communication mean that you are more or less transparent? In what areas? If these topics and others related to transparency as a core value are of interest to your organization, we may have areas of mutual focus and alignment. Reach out if you would like to talk more.
Core values are an organization’s fundamental beliefs and the highest priorities driving their behavior. You can think of core values as an internal compass of principles that drive an organization’s direction and decisions. And core values are not just ones that are worthwhile — the “core” means they represent top priorities and drivers.
In our quest for clarity and transparency as core values, we have found that the occasional critic will dig into your work to find targets to prick you. Does this weaponize transparency? Maybe. Does it seem like a “no good deed goes unpunished” type of situation? Yes. Is the knee-jerk reaction to pull back and be less transparent a good one? No. Scientists (and many others) are more likely to identify with an organization that can say “yes transparency may hurt us on occasion, but if we back off, we’ll lose more than that. We will lose our identity and our values.”
Scientific organizations respect scientific dialogue about the strengths and weaknesses of research studies. Transparency as a core value is not only essential but inexorable for IAFNS. Our scientific training and culture carry over. We expect and enjoy exchanging and debating evidence with a “let the chips fall where they may” approach. We expect and celebrate the diversity of funding sources. So, in that sense, transparency is a natural core value for us.
And in a broader sense, transparency seems to be emerging as a core value in the food science and health sectors. This can only benefit consumers, patients, producers, clinicians, researchers, and policymakers of all stripes.
Dr. Wendelyn Jones is Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS). She has a passion for bringing together science and society, drawing from her global experiences working across chemical, agricultural, food and health sectors. She applies her PhD in life sciences to extend IAFNS’ contribution to, and impact within, diverse scientific and health communities.