While most people can appreciate how science has improved their lives, the public is still often skeptical of science; nutrition science is no exception. Nutrition science is particularly complex as it’s not just about food and nutrients - it also includes a constantly evolving understanding of genetics, physiology, biology, psychology, social behavior and social systems. As new scientific discoveries in each of these areas are made, health professionals and the media are likely to respond by advising consumers to avoid a nutrient one day, and then, when findings evolve, to reverse recommendations and advise increased consumption of that same nutrient. Research findings may also be overstated in the media, or by researchers themselves. It can be confusing. Nutrition is universal and it impacts everyone. We are all consumers and we all must eat. Food is the third largest budget expenditure for American households, at 12.6 percent (behind housing and transportation)1. In fact, agriculture and agriculture-related industries contributed $835 billion to the GDP in 2014, a 4.8 percent share2. Nutrition plays a key role in maintaining the health of the nation, and impacts multiple sectors of our economy from agriculture to health care. Nutrition is vital, not only for the growth and development of humans and animals, but also for the prevention and treatment of disease.
As scientific issues within the nutrition and food research arena become more complex and multi-sectoral, innovative ways to investigate and answer multifaceted research questions become critically important. Government resources devoted to health and agricultural portfolios that support food and nutrition research are slowly increasing3, but many have been stagnant for decades. Collaborative relationships among government, industry, academia, and other nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations are increasingly appreciated as a way to advance public health and the nutrition research agenda. However, partnering among various food and nutrition stakeholders can lead to questions of conflict of interest (COI) and objectivity, making it even more difficult to achieve acceptance and adoption of scientifically-based nutrition policy, practices and recommendations.
The public’s trust in nutrition science hangs in a fragile balance, and there are many contributing factors. As new science and research become available, recommendations change accordingly. The rapid growth of internet access and social media offering up-to-the-minute advice from news segments and personal bloggers has provided endless opportunity for anyone to add to the already complex arena of nutrition science.
So, how can we strengthen communication and trust between the general public and scientific disciplines? What strategies and policies can be improved upon to ensure scientific rigor and transparency in research and communications?
The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) recently created an Advisory Committee focused on ensuring public trust through best practices in scientific rigor and transparency. As the authoritative voice on nutrition science research, policy and practice, ASN is committed to ensuring trust across all sectors of the field, and especially ensuring trust with the general public. It is therefore critical that ASN maintains trust amongst all constituencies and stakeholders, and encourages others to do the same.
The American Society of Nutrition has sought out a diverse and uniquely skilled group which comprises the Advisory Committee. Chaired by Dr. Cutberto Garza of Boston College, the following are the Advisory Committee’s constituents:
- Vinita Bali, Chair, Board of Directors, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition
- Catherine Bertini, Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs, Syracuse University
- Eric Campbell, PhD, Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
- Edward Cooney, JD, Former Executive Director, Congressional Hunger Center
- Michael McGinnis, MD, Professor Adjunct, Internal Medicine, Yale School of Medicine
- Carol Tucker-Foreman, Distinguished Fellow, Consumer Federation of America Food Policy Institute
- Catherine Woteki, PhD, Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, US Department of Agriculture
- Patrick Stover, PhD, President, American Society for Nutrition (ex-officio member)
- John Courtney, PhD, Executive Officer, American Society for Nutrition (ex-officio member)
The Advisory Committee will examine the pathways that lead to influence and public trust, including establishment and implementation of organizational policies and practices, and dissemination and reporting of those policies and practices to policy makers, practitioners, and the general public, and identify vulnerabilities requiring more checks and balances. The Advisory Committee will also advise the ASN Board regarding how ASN’s own policies and practices can be better aligned with their recommendations.
The Advisory Committee will work towards building a roadmap that lays a foundation for a consistent and continuous platform of trust and transparency, despite the ever-changing and evolving field of nutrition science. The ASN Advisory Committee is expected to have a final report available in 2017.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Ag and Food Sectors and the Economy; Share of U.S. household consumer expenditures by major categories, 2014. (Uses data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Expenditure Survey.) Retrieved May 16, 2016, from http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/ag-and-food-sectors-and-the-economy.aspx
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Ag and Food Sectors and the Economy; Value added to GDP by agriculture and related industries, 2007-14. (Uses data from U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Value Added by Industry series.) Retrieved May 16, 2016, from http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/ag-and-food-sectors-and-the-economy.aspx
- Ohlhorst S and Zhang J. Chapter 25: Food Safety and Nutrition in the FY 2016 Budget. In AAAS Report XL: Research and Development FY 2016. April 2015. Retrieved May 16, 2016, from http://www.aaas.org/fy16budget/food-safety-and-nutrition-fy-2016-budget-0