Questions, answers and lessons from the Maryland chocolate milk/concussions debacle

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.   

Answers after months of waiting

holtzThe 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.

Q&A: Here’s how the report answered our questions

These are the (slightly edited) questions I posted on the 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?

  • A: Not anymore. The report says the university should never issue releases containing data or conclusions until they have been through peer review.

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?

  • A: The committee found “a concerning lack of understanding of the basic principles of conflict of interest in research at all levels of the process among those we interviewed” and “significant deviations from accepted practices in the conduct of research.”
  • All funding from the milk industry is to be returned.
  • All faculty, staff and students involved in funded research or service projects are to get in-person training on conflict of interest principles.
  • Policy reviews underway “will produce a set of changes in operating practices in university-industry partnerships.”

Q: Was the participation of the students reviewed by the University of Maryland Institutional Review Board? If not, why not?

  • A: The report concludes the researcher did not report important details about the study of high school students, including an extra round of concussion evaluation tests.
  • The university’s Institutional Review Board was told to take another look at how it considers both the scientific merit of research involving people and whether participants are truly volunteering and have given consent when necessary, especially when the research involves children.

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?

  • A: The report said, “No faculty or staff should endorse a product if that person is identified as an employee of the university.”
  • The report found that before the study began two outside reviewers had warned the project was “missing numerous elements that would make this effective in concluding anything that would be useful to the company or to the state of the literature” and the proposal was “missing major design elements that indicate the research staff understands how nutritional studies work in human subjects”. However, these concerns were not passed along to the researcher.

Independent journalism served as a final safeguard

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.

For PR folks: Lessons for dealing with the news media

Earle Holland 2After 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.

What not to do

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:

  • When the news media call asking for a copy of a study you promoted, hand it over.  Reporters just want more information to fill in the blanks left open by whatever your news release omitted.  If you’re clueless about the project, admit it and promise to get back quickly with an answer, if not a copy of the study.
  • If you find potential problems with the study, acknowledge them and explain you’ll respond as soon as you can.  Reporters admire honesty and will often be less demanding once they know that you’re working on their behalf.
  • If they want to talk to senior officials and administrators, make that happen.  While faculty can choose to avoid talking with the news media, administrators can’t since they fundamentally are public officials.  Even if they lack answers, they can admit that and promise to seek out the desired information.  Maryland’s stonewalling only earned them animosity from the news media.
  • If reporters make legal public records requests, do everything possible to fulfill them.  Don’t fall back on the legal guidelines to buy time when responding is an easy task.  Yes, the law allows institutions to “buy time” in these cases but doing so only alienates reporters and the reading public, who see through such delays.  And waive any costs for answering those requests – reporters are working in the public’s interest and charging additional fees seems vindictive.
  • Above all, put yourself in the shoes of the public who want to support the science that major research universities conduct.  Fill requests as best you can, make experts or officials available and avoid the tendency to “circle the wagons.”  Surprisingly, these controversies often present opportunities to let the public see institutions as good citizens, rather than targets.

Put the public first

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.

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