If I Bill, Am I A Shill? Why Travel Funding and Speaker Fees Don’t Equal Industry Bias.

COI tweetA New York Times article published this week questioned the ethics of large companies funding travel for scientists to “promote” technologies or agendas. The quotation marks are there because the gist of the article (and related Twitter debate) is that if scientists have travel costs or speaker fees paid by industry, their scientific expertise and credibility is at best suspect, at worst, massively biased by a conflict of interest (COI).

Obviously I cannot presume to speak on behalf of all scientists, but having done presentations for 8+ years to audiences ranging from rural high schools and county cattlemen’s associations to international corporations, government and the National Academy of Sciences, I’d like to give you my perspective.

I trained as an animal scientist and gained my BSc and PhD in the UK, followed by post-doctoral work at Cornell University. I was an Assistant Professor at Washington State University for 2.75 years, and started my own consultancy business 3.5 years ago. As a consultant I divide my time between animal science research and presentations. My peer-reviewed scientific research is funded by industry. Beef industry associations, dairy industry groups, animal health companies, et al. That does not mean it’s biased, inaccurate or lacks credibility. It simply means that the research that I do is useful to the industry in which I trained and work. Who else would fund a project modelling the environmental impact of the beef industry or the effects of using Jersey rather than Holstein cattle for cheese production, if not the beef and dairy industries?

My presentations are also often funded by industry. Sometimes directly, when a company asks me to give a presentation as part of a conference that they are sponsoring or organising, sometimes indirectly when I’m asked to speak by conference organisers who then seek funding to cover the costs of hosting the conference. In the latter cases I sometimes haven’t known who’s sponsoring my expenses/honorarium until my talk is introduced by the chairperson. Bias? COI? I haven’t even had time to process the fact that I’ve been sponsored by Company X before I’m up on stage, let alone had time to amend my slides/messages.

Travel costs are almost always covered, sometimes an honorarium or speaker fee is also offered. Do I accept speaker fees? Absolutely. It’s part of my job to do a good presentation and be recompensed accordingly; and I have a small daughter who’s constantly growing out of her clothes. However, I’ve done a significant number of talks without a speaker fee attached because I’m interested in attending the conference; because I’d like to visit the region; because I know that the indirect return on investment (networking opportunities, etc) is worth it or simply because I know they cannot afford to pay me. Does that mean those talks were more balanced? Credible? Non-biased? No. As with all my presentations, the data was peer-reviewed science (with citations at the base of each slide), irrespective of the presence or absence of a speaker fee.

Sci travel tweetHowever, accepting speaker fees or travel expenses apparently makes me a less credible expert, because some journalists and food pundits consider that scientists must be biased by their funding sources.

So let’s reverse the questions:

How many journalists can say that they are not influenced by their editor, the paper/media they work for or the fee that they’re paid? That the article published is exactly the same as the first draft that they submitted, unaltered by editorial staff or policy? The only instance in which I ever recall an inviting organisation making changes to my slides was when I gave a webinar to a national dietetic organisation and their educational board had to approve my presentation’s scientific content. I was reluctant to submit my slides in that instance as I did not wish whatever their agenda might be to alter my science-based message.

About four years ago, a journalist demanded to have a “second opinion” to balance a paper I presented at a scientific conference in Australia (again based on peer-reviewed, published science), from a 1st-year masters student studying social sustainability, because the journalist considered that I was “too tied to the livestock industry” for my science to be impartial. Apparently the quotes from the masters student (from non-peer-reviewed anti-animal agriculture activist group reports) were considered to be non-biased, and the journalist’s “too tied” conclusion was based on reading the 140 characters in my Twitter bio. As scientists, we have to back up our hypotheses and conclusions with scientific literature and data. Yet, we’re accused and often condemned without trial based on speculation relating to our relationships with companies or industries with which we work. What happened to journalistic integrity and proof?

How many people would travel across states, countries or continents as part of their job, but refuse travel expenses and fund it themselves, as some seem to be suggesting that scientists should do to prove their credibility? Travel expenses are not benefits, tax-free income nor a huge bag of Scrooge McDuck-esque gold coins tossed to the scientist by “big ag” or “big pharma” with an extortion to go and have fun in the city. In reality, they mean staying in yet another Holiday Inn Express, accounting for every meal, flight and cab ride, and if you lose that $30 receipt for your airport parking, well tough luck, you’re covering that one yourself. Furthermore, why should scientists be expected to work for low or no pay simply to gain credibility, when the idea of being anything but transparent, honest and scientific never even occurred to the vast majority of us?

Most journalists with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work have been straightforward about their intentions and outcomes. However, perhaps it’s time to examine the integrity of those among them who have the ability to influence millions and are the first to seek FOIA data or call “bias”? Or do we have to accept that given that bad news sells papers, we can’t blame them for trying to rake up the dirt? Sadly, given the current follow the money culture in which we live, the fact that I choose to be paid by industry rather than academia is likely to continue to lead to claims of biased research in future, regardless of scientific veracity and peer-review. I’m happy that I can dismiss the claims, knowing that sponsors have never tried to influence, bias or bury my work and will continue to publish in academic journals, acknowledging funding sources.

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10 thoughts on “If I Bill, Am I A Shill? Why Travel Funding and Speaker Fees Don’t Equal Industry Bias.

  1. I witnessed the entire convo on Twitter and I have to say I lost a lot of respect for Ms. Harmon. I had admired her previous writings on biotechnology but the absurdity of arguing over travel expenses…she lost me on that one.

    I started giving presentations on what I do on my blog and social media in regards to agriculture about 1.5 years ago and some lined up for this winter already, but there’s no way on earth I could afford to do them for free or especially to pay for my own travel. Time (I’m talking hours here) working on a presentation is time away from my children and, quite frankly, I don’t work for free and feel it’s right to be paid. I am open to doing some presentations for free, as you are depending on location/group/conference, etc., but to be expected to pay my way there and lose money? Sorry…not worth it. I highly doubt those journalists pay their own way everywhere they go.

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    • I completely agree Sarah. It’s a sad reflection of some journalists’ view of the world that paid travel apparently makes the scientific message untrustworthy. Surely that throws doubt on every article that they publish that included paid expenses? It would be nice to think that we could all work and travel for free, but I have exactly the same issues – it’s not fair on my daughter if I take time (and money) away from her simply to make my message look better to the cynics among us.

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  2. Spot on!

    I was called out by a fellow RD at the Hawaii Dietetic Association last year asking “who was paying me to speak”. Besides being immature and unprofessional, it was insulting. It was costing me money to be there. I work as a farmer, not a professional speaker. If I’m not farming, I’m not bringing home a paycheck. I was reimbursed for 2 hotel nights and my flight, and while Hawaii is beautiful, it personally cost me to speak to the Hawaii Dietetic Association.

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    • FoodieFarmer – I had a similar experience at an extension event in Minnesota some years ago, when a heckler from the audience demanded to knew who funded my research – the express intent being to discredit my message.

      Because of the time taken away from (paid) research when I have to travel to do a talk, I’m also effectively losing money on every talk I do – and before I’ve misplaced my cab receipts!

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  3. So here’s something I don’t know: when journalists give talks at conferences, forums, whatever–and they do, I see lots of examples of this–do they pay their own travel? Do they get honorarium/speaker fees?

    I assumed they did get that covered, because their time is valuable and it shouldn’t be their coin to deliver content to some audience. I didn’t see the conversation about this on twitter–did anyone ask this journalist?

    I mean, I see Michael Pollan at a lot of events. Ya know?

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    • I can’t answer for journalists, but Michael Pollan was asked to speak when I was faculty at WSU, and he had an extremely high fee (multiples of $10k) compared to most academics (multiples of $500). I was able to visit Joel Salatin’s farm a few years ago and he said that the majority of his income comes not from farming but from the talks that he does. I don’t have any issue with that (obviously!) yet I am irritated that many consumers would consider him to be a far more credible/less biased source than somebody invited to speak or compensated by “industry”.

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  4. I read that NY Times article and found it perplexing. The underlying assumption seemed to be that it was somehow inappropriate for companies to ask academics to explain the science supporting their business decisions.

    Let’s face it. The whole subject of genetically modified crops is flooded with controversy and a very large fraction of that flood is misinformation. The seed companies are being publicly attacked. What is the problem with a company wanting scientists, who have some credibility, to provide information to counter that misinformation? If company X suffers from propaganda attacks, must it limit its response only to its public relations department? Should it be paying an advertising agency to make its counter-claims? Would that be more credible?

    Conflicts of interest are, of course, always problematical whenever there is a controversy, but a validation from academic scientists is probably far less likely to be tainted by COI than any other avenue available to a company under attack.

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    • Completely agree Charles. A PhD working in academia will always have more credibility to the nay-sayers than one working for the company in question, but it seems that any tie whatsoever (even being asked to speak, regardless of travel expenses or speaking fees) means that they must be biased. Are companies supposed to invite speakers who vehemently disagree with the product (regardless of science) simply to show perceived balance?

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