The University of Maryland has taken a hit to its credibility as a major research institution─and for one of the silliest reasons possible: The Terps, officials have conceded, showed almost no internal rigor nor basic research processes in promoting a product endorsement. Let’s give kudos to HealthNewsReview.org, a nonprofit health information watchdog, and local media for crying bull on the U’s news releases asserting that high school and collegiate athletes who drank a named brand of chocolate milk fared better on measures related to concussion recovery.
It took the folks in College Park months to fess up to their error, pointed out to them repeatedly and pointedly by outsiders concerned that the university was giving out bad health information.
It gets worse, as the school has conceded in releasing its own investigation: A bevy of highly credentialed experts failed to recognize not only the fatuousness of the so-called research the university promoted. They also went blind to blatant conflicts of interest with this study─notably that an industry group gave the work’s principal investigator a $200,000 gift to support his lab and staff just before the questionable news releases went flying. The U also seemed to play fast and loose with tough rules and principles about human experimentation.
Is this case a small beans matter? I think not. I’ve written about how health care has become rife with hype and misinformation that can harm our health and health care choices. We need, especially, to be able to trust and rely on publicly funded, major universities like Maryland to provide scientifically sound, fact-based, conflict-free information about critical subjects like what’s favorable or negative to our health.
If, as this chocolate milk study shows, just about anyone on any of the U’s campuses can put out information to the public─taking the institution’s name and reputation and goodwill with it─that’s problematic.
It’s odious when promotion of misinformation occurs, especially with unabashed, undisclosed commercialism connected to it. It’s, frankly, incomprehensible how a tenured faculty member who gets university support to conduct research can’t grasp why he can’t endorse a commercial product, willy nilly and widely.
Could no one on campus look at this study and say, Really, what? We’re going to give high school and collegiate athletes (“volunteer” women’s soccer players) chocolate milk by the case, then make them undergo a few, simple, noninvasive tests that they were going to take anyhow, and somehow make grand pronouncements about a product’s benefits? It’s galling that simple-minded “research” like this will be used by the anti-science crowd to deride serious work of an urgent nature, and more critically, to slash its funding for nonsensical reasons.
As HealthNewsReview.org also has pointed, there’s shame to be spread around to the school district that wouldn’t answer simple media queries, and did allow teen-agers in its charge to be part of a research project─apparently without parental consent or thoughtful review. Chilling, historic episodes involving the cruelest exploitation of human guinea pigs have made it a mandatory protocol to take every measure to safeguard live, healthy subjects in medical-scientific research.
The university experts who were supposed to safeguard these teen subjects apparently decided that chocolate milk consumption wouldn’t harm them. Well, duh: How could they not ask, then, how it would benefit them sufficiently for the university to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for research? What exactly is the purpose of expert, independent scrutiny by an Institutional Review Board if it allows slip-shod outcomes like this?
The U has promised to take steps to address the many shortfalls that this incident has exposed, including returning the industry funding in full. But the school may need its influential backers and alums, both those who donate generously and those who advocate for its interests in Annapolis, to step in. That’s because this stupid case has shown all too painfully that too many highly paid folks in a proud institution may be drinking more than chocolate milk on the job, instead of watching out for taxpayer’s interests.