Background Government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) recruit academics as topic experts to give advice and help formulate public policy. Conflicts of interest (CoI) occur where this advice is potentially impaired by other commitments. The full effect of CoI is unknown but there are concerns that top level policy decisions are being affected. We therefore examined the independence of such academic experts and how well potential CoI are identified and addressed.
Methods Our investigation used mixed methods. We conducted a rapid literature review to scope scientific consensus on potential problems caused by CoI and how they could be resolved. Subsequently, four high-level UK food policy groups were examined for potential CoI as case studies. These were two government policy-making bodies (The ‘Obesity Review Group’ (ORG), The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and two charities, ‘Action on Sugar’ (AoS), and ‘Heart of Mersey’ (HoM).
All information was obtained from publicly available sources. Group members were individually categorised on a four point ordinal ConScale from “0”, (complete independence from industry) to “3”, (an employee of the food and drink industry or a representative organisation), or as ‘unknown’ on the basis of CoI declarations found.
Results CoI involving various industries have long been evident in policy making, academia and clinical practice. Potential CoI have been shown to threaten the objectivity of scientific advice. The rapid review included 26 papers recommending policies for managing CoI. Suggested approaches were classified as ‘conservative’, ‘descriptive’ or ‘prescriptive’. The consensus favoured ‘prescriptive’ policies (65%).
Declared CoI were common in the ORG and SACN. 5/28 ORG members were direct industry employees. In SACN 11/17 members declared industry advisory roles or research funding. This may reflect SACN’s ‘descriptive’ policy, where declarations are published annually, but little action follows. The two charities appear to have fewer conflicts. 5/21 AoS members declared minor links with industry. No HoM members declared CoI. Furthermore, these organisations have comparable or greater academic expertise.
Conclusion Conflicts of interest (CoI) are widespread, and potentially very harmful. Greater awareness and discussion of the prevalence and implications of CoI is needed. However, the current UK government is currently encouraging public-private partnerships which promote CoI, thereby undermining scientific consensus. UK Practices are thus unsatisfactory when judged against the exemplary benchmark of the pragmatic and sensible Nolan Principles of Public Life. These principles should apply to all government activities. Ignoring these principles could damage the future production of evidence-based public health.
- conflict of interest
- food policy