If you've ever flirted with the Atkins diet, but worried about the effect all that meat would have on your arteries, you might be interested in a study showing that a high-protein diet actually improves your cholesterol levels. But would it affect your opinion if you learnt the research was partly funded by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association?
News stories often crop up that sound vaguely scientific, announcing an equation for the happiest day of the year, or describing the terrifying number of bacteria on a dishcloth. A closer look usually reveals that they've originated with PR companies, and aim to promote a product (ice cream and cleaning products in these two genuine examples).
While you might take it with a pinch of salt if the Margarine and Spreads Association criticises celebrity chefs for using too much butter (another story published last year), dealing with conflicts of interest is an important question for science.
A state of affairs
The point of science is that it can give us impartial answers to important questions. Doctors and patients can look at scientific evidence to help them decide what makes a healthy diet, or whether a drug can treat a particular condition. Scientific journals publish detailed reports of research, allowing readers to see for themselves that the studies were unbiased.
Of course, there are other factors at work too. Researchers are only human, journals want to publish exciting new findings, and drug companies want to demonstrate that their products are effective. That's why scientific journals work hard to be transparent about conflicts of interest, and usually give information about how studies were funded.
Industry funding isn't in itself a cause for alarm. A good study is a good study, regardless of who paid for it, but being open about conflicts of interest is part of the process by which we can trust scientific evidence.