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The Problem with Big Companies Funding South Africa Health Research

— March 29, 2024

Research funding can present conflicts of interest which jeopardize the validity of findings.

From the big-picture perspective, health research is a good thing. All of the incredible modern medicine we have available today is owed to research and the many talented people who work in this field to uncover things that were never previously known about human health and how to treat it.

With that said, there is a darker side to health research that deserves to be brought into the light – the source of the money. All research needs funding to pay for the time of the experts working on the problems, their equipment, and much more. Increasingly, the source of those funds is corporations that have a vested interest in how the research will turn out at the end of the project. This presents some potential conflicts of interest and may jeopardize the validity of the whole process.

As one example of this issue at play, the situation in South Africa highlights how competing interests can get in the way of good science. In 2021, the director of the African Research University Alliance Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of Pretoria joined the board of Nestlé. This was particularly concerning because the majority of the food offerings presented by Nestlé to the public fall short of meeting the standards of what is considered healthy food.

Moving forward, now Nestlé has agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding with the research facility to work together on food and nutrition research. Given Nestlé’s obvious financial interest in the success of food that is less than healthy, this is an alliance that has given many people in the industry cause for concern.

The Problem with Big Companies Funding South Africa Health Research
Photo by Martin Lopez from Pexels

Research was performed in 2017 that aimed at analyzing the results when industry companies get involved in funding research. Not surprisingly, those studies tended to come out in favor of the industry, whether those results were intentional or unconscious. Given the worldwide struggles that are currently being faced with obesity and related diseases, it’s particularly important that people are given good food options and the information they need to make sound decisions for themselves.

The problem has gotten so significant that roughly one-third of all deaths around the world are attributed to one of the four sectors within the food industry. It wasn’t too long ago that the tobacco industry was funding research regarding the safety of cigarettes, and the input of those corporate dollars had a devastating effect on overall human health as a result.

It seems unlikely that it will be possible to get corporate dollars entirely out of the research process. After all, those corporations have huge budgets to work from, and if some of that money is made available to further research efforts, it still can be a positive thing. However, that research needs to be carefully protected, and steps need to be taken to make sure the results of the research are authentic and not influenced by the motivations of the company that funded the work. On that front, there is still much work to be done.


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