Over the last year or so two senior Australian nutritionists have been subjected to a sustained social media campaign to denigrate them and their research. Their alleged crime? Daring to say what they believed to be true.
In 2011, Professor Jennie Brand-Miller from the University of Sydney and Dr Alan Barclay, Chief Scientific Officer at the Glycaemic Index Foundation and Head of Research at the Australian Diabetes Council published a paper on the Australian Paradox – the apparent fall in sugar consumption that occurred over a period when rates of obesity in this country increased. The paper was obviously intended to stir the pot a little.
The narrative in the United States at the time was that the increase in obesity prevalence in that country had coincided with increasing sugar intake, so perhaps sugar was a causative factor. In their paper Barclay and Brand-Miller pointed out that while that may well be the case in the United States, sugar intakes had remained fairly constant in the United Kingdom over the same period and had actually fallen by 16 per cent in Australia. However, both countries had experienced an increase in rates of obesity, hence the Australian Paradox.
Under normal circumstances this simple paper may have dissolved away into the vast ocean of scientific literature and never been heard of again. However, a member of the public took exception to the finding that sugar intakes in Australia were falling. Despite not having any qualifications in nutrition or science he had formed a view that sugar intakes in Australia were in fact rising. A social media campaign was initiated to attack the nutrition researchers and their findings and a formal complaint was lodged with the University of Sydney.
It was alleged that Barclay and Brand-Miller deliberately included falsified data in their analysis, were reckless, caused harm or risked public health and gained personally from their conduct. For nutrition research scientists the accusations could not have been more serious. After all, the researchers were required to adhere to the University of Sydney Research Code of Conduct and the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. If they were found to have breached these codes their respective careers in research were finished.
The University of Sydney took the complaint seriously and decided that an internal enquiry may not have been sufficient to resolve the issue. An external, independent person of recognised high academic standing and with substantial experience in overseeing matters of ethics and integrity was sought to conduct the review. Professor Robert Clark AO, Chair of Energy Strategy and Policy at the University of New South Wales, Former Chief Defence Scientist of Australia and CEO of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation accepted the role. His 86-page report has just been released after a six-month inquiry.
The University of Sydney summed up the key findings of the report in its press release:
• A formal inquiry into allegations brought against a University of Sydney academic and her research collaborator has found no research misconduct occurred.
• There was no breach of the University’s research code of conduct or of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research.
• Consequently, there is no basis for further investigation and the allegations have been dismissed.
Although the nutrition researchers must be relieved by the findings of the review we can only imagine what it was like to suffer the sustained attack on personal and professional integrity they had to endure. Professor Clark’s comments in the body of the report provide some insight:
It is my view that, at interview, Professor Brand-Miller and Dr Barclay presented as open, honest, and well-intentioned academics … The stress resulting from the impact of the Complainant’s allegations on their scientific integrity was apparent. They each expressed the view that over the past few years they had effectively undergone ‘trial by internet’ due to the manner in which the Complainant had aired the allegations in the public domain.
An inconvenient truth
Was all this really necessary?
It would appear that Barclay and Brand-Miller were targeted because they were generating data that undermined the sugar scare being perpetuated by various media personalities, celebrities and booksellers, who presumably were on a nice little earner. To sustain the sugar scare there had to be a crisis –a tsunami of sugar crashing across Australia wreaking havoc on the population’s health. Evidence that sugar intake was actually falling simply represented an inconvenient truth that had to be buried, along with the nutrition scientists who dared to publish it.
Science is all about a contest of ideas – debate between differing views is inherent in the process. But the place for such arguments is in scientific meetings or in peer-reviewed journals where dissent can be recorded for posterity. But fundamental to such debates is soundly based scientific evidence, civility and respect for one’s opponent.
Sadly these were missing in the attack on Brand-Miller and Barclay.