An inconvenient truth: Barclay and Brand-Miller exonerated

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.

The accusation

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 investigator

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 findings

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.


18 thoughts on “An inconvenient truth: Barclay and Brand-Miller exonerated

  1. So disappointing that untrained agenda pushing individuals making money out of random unproven claims can cause such havoc. The problem is not that people question and indeed questioning is healthy but rather that these same people are not similarly subject to the same level of scrutiny for their misinformation, slander of others and other such propaganda nor are they accountable in anyway. That their claims are made without any evidence, research and that they can dismiss good research as part of their publicity stunts. That to me is the bigger problem.

    • Hello KB. Part of the problem is the role of the media – they love a celebrity with extreme dietary views. The scientific rationale for those views just doesn’t matter to the media. They just want a pretty/handsome face and some outrageous dietary recommendations and up go the ratings – job done for the boss.
      This poses a real challenge to scientifically trained dietitians and nutritionists: how do you argue for moderation and balance in the midst of all of this? Moderation and balance are boring – definitely not worth two pages in the Saturday paper. I may need to write a post on this! Regards, Bill

      • They may have been exonerated (for being dodgy) but they have effectively been told to go back and do their sums properly. The “Australian Paradox” itself is a myth. We are the same as other western countries around the world…there simply is NO paradox.

        • The report found that the intake of sugar reduced by 150g per capita per year not 600g as was originally reported and that sugar from soft drinks etc reduced not the actual volume of soft drinks.

          These were seen as a miscalculation not intentional however both are still a decrease in sugar intake and therefore the point of the article is valid ie obesity went up sugar went down.

  2. Perhaps Prof. Brand-Miller and Dr Barclay could consider their own legal options now they have been cleared of any wrongdoing. It is possible that the ill informed member of the public engaged in making malicious complaints and that this can be taken to this person’s own professional integrity body (eg. The relevant state’s law institute if the person who made the complaint is a lawyer)? While I imagine both Dr Barclay and Prof. Brand-Miller will be pleased to put this all behind them, if there is any way the ill informed can be placed under similar professional scrutiny, perhaps it warrants consiferation?

    • Hi Sonja. I can’t speak for these researchers but my guess is that they would like to put their heads down and get back to work. Carbohydrates is a challenging field and their is currently a dearth of policy guidance. We need our experienced people focussing on the issues and bringing the latest insights to us, not wasting time defending themselves against ill-informed criticism. Regards, Bill.

  3. I am so pleased an external inquiry was done other wise these accusations would have continued to be trotted out to support the commercial agenda of the complainant at any public meeting they can.

    How can we now make sure everyone knows that sugar intake is being reduced in Australia and there are many factors that are contributing to our obesity epidemic.

    Indeed ” An inconvenient truth”

    • Hi ENW. I spent the last 15 years trying to encourage policy makers not to blame dietary fat for the obesity epidemic. When the argument was won I was expecting that there would be a period of less extremes, where the focus was on lowering total energy intake. Then the sugar scare came along and now we are repeating what we did with fat – blaming a single nutrient for the obesity epidemic on the basis of hardly any data. I thought smart people were supposed to learn from their mistakes. Regards, Bill

  4. Thanks Bill for the update. I feel sorry that for Jenny and Alan it has taken such a long time for their research findings to be accepted. Keep plugging along fellow nutritionists and dietitians!

  5. Thanks Bill for helping to set the record straight and publish the truth. Now all we need is to get the media to publish this blog post and speak the truth!

    • What truth? Their research was proven flawed. They have to go back and fix it. They were exonerated from being deliberately misleading. They just made an honest mistake.

  6. SO good to read about the completion of this process. The complainant is obsessed with sugar – David Gillespie is his hero, and he spends hours on The Conversation, commenting on every thread relating to diet, and linking anyone with a degree from the University of Sydney to the study (including myself – because he found that my degree was from Univ of Sydney – over thirty years ago. I’ll be pleased to refer him to the full report.

    I feel for the nutrition profession, under attack from the self-made ”experts” and the zealots.

  7. Hhmmm, so it’s OK for you to slander Pete Evans and say that he should be arrested but not OK to question these two Dr’s? I would call that double standards.

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