The selection of functional values and practices in industry-funded nutrition science
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Industry-funded research in nutrition science tends to generate knowledge that is beneficial to the funder. This effect is known to distort our knowledge of nutrition, and consequently undermine public health policy and the public trust in science. Scholars who study the phenomenon explain it either as an effect of intentional manipulation by food companies and biased researchers, or as the result of an unconscious bias that researchers hold towards their sponsors. In this thesis, I want to investigate an additional mechanism that can explain this phenomenon: the effect of selection on the values and practices in nutrition science. When food companies fund research, they selectively pick researchers who hold pro-industry values and beliefs or use value-embedded concepts and methods that help them produce studies with beneficial outcomes. Modern university departments recruit and promote new nutrition researchers based on their publication record and their capacity to generate external funding, and therefore indirectly select for researchers who possess pro-industry values and practices. These researchers gain in academic prestige, and then teach their values and practices to new generations of researchers, consequently shifting the research culture of the nutrition science community. To study the possibility and scope of this selection mechanism, I have develop a method based on functionalist sociology and cultural evolution. Robert Merton's structuralist functionalism can offer the methods and theoretical tools to uncover the latent functions of the values and practices in the nutrition science community. The theory of cultural selection can then support Merton’s structuralist worldview and provide a framework for empirical research on how selection has shaped the functional values and practices in nutrition science. I have integrated these two fields into a new framework – called structural selectionism – and applied it to the case of Dutch dairy science. By doing so, I demonstrate the benefits of structural selectionism as a methodology, and show that selection can explain why current day nutrition science serves the industry’s interests instead of the public interest. Since selection is indeed a relevant factor, a reform of the incentive structure of science is necessary to preserve the public interest in nutrition science.