But then I started thinking…

by Sarah Luna

My mind can go strange places if not properly reined in.  Most of the time this happens as I’m listening to a lecture or walking between classes. Something will grab my attention and hold fast.

Earlier this week, I was sitting in a seminar actively interested in the material being presented. The speaker described the methods by which the World Health Organization makes nutrition recommendations and then facilitated a discussion on the adequacy and shortcomings of those procedures. That topic alone fascinated and engaged me. Experts from all over the world would gather the existing body of knowledge (which could be HUGE), debate it, and form an “evidence-based” recommendation.

But as a side note, she mentioned that each participating member had to state their conflicts of interest at the beginning of the meeting. Those who had conflicts of interest were still invited to participate in the discussion; however, they were not granted the privilege of voting.

As this is where my brain took off.

One type of person who would have a conflict of interest is a founder of a supplementation company. Obviously that person would be extremely knowledgeable about their particular supplement and could provide valuable information. But their vested interest in their company might bias them. That’s simple enough to understand.

But then I started thinking: what if that person were a member of the scientific community who simply saw a need for a product and created it? That person is a colleague, yet their entrepreneurial endeavors have inhibited their ability to take part fully in the scientific discussion–in the advancement of scientific knowledge. Is it then impossible to be both a scientist and an entrepreneur?

This thought forced me to revisit a discussion I had had with a friend who was discouraged with his PhD studies. He was frustrated with the emphasis on technological processes to the exclusion of creating polished products. He was tired of developing processes and exploring methods that were never going to be implemented. I explained to him that a PhD is the development of processes to find new knowledge–to discover what is unknown. We move from unanswered question to unanswered question and hand over our findings to others who can implement them.

As academics, our job is processes; whereas in industry, it would be products. In my mind, one will be my job, and the other will be my hobby. If I stay in academia, the processes will be my job, and I’ll dabble in the applications on my own.   If I choose to enter industry, I will be responsible for products and be left to explore the unanswered questions on my own. But he wants to do it all. He wants to start with the inception of an idea and follow it through to the creation of a quality product.

This brings me back to conflicts of interest. If he (or I) were to do both, the industry side would invariably taint the scientific side. Our scientific opinions would no longer be “unbiased”, and we’d be excluded from the decision-making process in our fields. This brings me to my next question: do I want to be a decision-maker or the advisor of decision-makers?

I’ll leave that for a future post.

All of this flew through my mind while I listened to the speaker describe the scientific decision-making process. This is the mechanism by which I will contribute to my field. It was awe-inspiring to listen to everything that goes into a scientific recommendation. It got me thinking.