Andrew Holtz and Earle Holland, who have been following this story since we first called attention to it in January, offer some summary wisdom and analysis following the release of a University of Maryland investigative report on the chocolate milk/concussions study.
The University of Maryland report exceeded my expectations, answering questions we raised in January and more. Of course, my expectations had been pushed pretty low by three months of silence and stonewalling that started almost immediately.
On Jan. 5, after I first contacted them, a university spokesperson emailed me that “the UMD researcher would be happy to discuss the study with you.” But, the next day a wall came down. I was told: “Thank you for reaching out and following up regarding the Fifth Quarter Fresh study. Since this is a preliminary study, we have learned it will make more sense to speak with you once there are more conclusive research results.”
At the time, all we could report was that the University of Maryland, without explanation, wasn’t answering mounting questions about the study and news releases. In mid-January, the university announced an institutional review of the matter, eventually leading to the detailed report released on April 1, 2016.
These are the (slightly edited) questions I posted on the HealthNewsReview.org blog on Jan. 11, 2016, along with answers from the newly released university report:
Q: Is it UMD policy to issue news releases containing health claims and research conclusions, without providing the data underlying those statements?
Q: What is the relationship between the company and the university and its researchers? What was the company’s involvement in the design, conduct, analysis and presentation of the study and its results? Specifically, how does the project and the dissemination of results conform with UMD’s policies on research agreements with industry? How does it conform with UMD policies on disclosure of conflicts of interest?
Q: Was the participation of the students reviewed by the University of Maryland Institutional Review Board? If not, why not?
Q: The news release included a quote from a public school superintendent stating that, based on the results of the study, the school district would like to provide Fifth Quarter Fresh chocolate milk to all student athletes. Did Prof. Shim or others at UMD tell school officials that the Fifth Quarter Fresh product is superior to other milk products, even though the news releases indicate that the studies have not actually compared Fifth Quarter Fresh to any other milk?
The university credited journalists with spotting that something was amiss. The final report is a thorough document that indicates–once our reports got the attention of top officials–they dug deeply. Communications officials said they heard our complaints about stonewalling loud and clear. They promised to be more open, and more specific about the reasons for any delays in answering questions from the public.
“The university credited journalists with spotting that something was amiss,” Holtz notes.
I certainly hope the promises are fulfilled. After all, as this case starkly demonstrates, when the policies and practices of even highly respected institutions falter, the questions from independent journalists can be the last safeguard.
After months of silence from the University of Maryland, we finally got in-depth answers. The report–along with its accompanying 62 documents–found more than 20 problems with the work and offered 15 clear recommendations to prevent a recurrent case. The review committee’s work was impressive.
However, the tug-of-war between a curious news media and an institution that preferred silence did little to assure the public that university research was being conducted as it should be. In fact, the case can now serve as a primer on how not to handle a research controversy. Other institutions should take note and learn from Maryland’s missteps:
Had Maryland followed these suggestions, it would have been seen as acting on the public’s behalf instead of appearing to worry first and foremost about its reputation. Large institutions–and the University of Maryland certainly qualifies–involve massive bureaucracies and the public understands that they can be slow to respond. Any action to counteract that lumbering is seen as a good thing, and the institution can benefit in the long run.
Science and higher education have lost stature before the public in recent years and citizens are right to raise questions about both. If the public is ever to regain its confidence in these two segments of society, research institutions are going to have to be a standard-bearer for doing the “right thing.” Otherwise, research universities will be seen as simply self-serving businesses rather than bastions of learning and new knowledge.