Texas A&M Chancellor Calls Statements on Meat Research by Harvard Professors UnethicalMon, 27 Jan 2020 12:07:26 CST
John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, took the extraordinary step this past week of sending a public letter of complaint to Harvard University president Lawrence Bacow. At issue is what’s been called an ongoing “food fight” between researchers at both institutions over whether or not it's healthy to eat red meat.
Sharp's letter cites a recent article in JAMA that accuses several Harvard public health researchers of trying to strong-arm another journal into pulling papers questioning longstanding guidance on beef consumption.
As these matters "undermine the values espoused by your institution," they "must be corrected immediately," Sharp wrote to Bacow. Meanwhile he said, “I can assure you that Texas A&M’s research is driven by science. Period.”
Sharp’s note also includes a photo from a recent cardiology conference, supposedly of a graphic used by Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The image accuses Texas A&M and Patrick Stover, a vice chancellor and dean of agriculture and life sciences there who co-authored the meat study, of being aligned with "big beef." Rejecting that notion, Sharp told Bacow he hoped to “work together to resolve this problem.” Such a resolution “should include a serious assessment by Harvard” of its affiliation with the True Health Initiative, he said, “and a comprehensive ethical review into any Harvard faculty involved” with it.
True Health is a global, independent organization that seeks to promote healthy lifestyles and eliminate preventable diseases. Willett and his Harvard public health colleague Frank Hu sit on True Health's governing council and are discussed at length in the JAMA piece.
In closing, Sharp said that Texas A&M wants Harvard to “join us for a purely scientific approach to nutrition for the sake of public health and public trust and reject the politics and unethical actions" that "have sought to discredit science and interfere in the scientific process.”
According to JAMA, things got tense around September, when the Annals of Internal Medicine planned to publish a group of articles on beef consumption. You may have heard of them -- they made headlines for suggesting that red meat isn’t all that bad for you. More specifically, they said that the overall evidence linking beef eating to heart and other diseases is overstated to tenuous.
The articles received immediate criticism, including from the past chair of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee, who called the research “fatally flawed.” Harvard's School of Public Health also released a statement against it, saying that the "new guidelines are not justified as they contradict the evidence generated from their own meta-analyses. Among the five published systematic reviews, three meta-analyses basically confirmed previous findings on red meat and negative health effects."
The True Health Initiative went a lot farther than that, though, JAMA says. The publication accuses it of purposely breaking the meat papers' embargo and asking that they be censored, purposely flooding the Annals’ editor with complaint emails to the point that she had to shut down her account, and other behaviors unbecoming of academics.
“We’ve published a lot on firearm injury prevention,” Annals editor Christine Laine told JAMA. “The response from the NRA was less vitriolic than the response from the True Health Initiative.”
A Harvard spokesperson said only that Bacow received Sharp’s letter.
JAMA notes that 44 Farms, a producer of Black Angus cattle, established an endowment within Stover’s unit to support Texas A&M's International Beef Cattle Academy. But the beef industry provides only about 1.5 percent of AgriLife’s funding, Texas A&M says.
Here is the text of the complete letter:
Dear Dr. Bacow,
I write to inform you of my dismay over recent actions by Harvard faculty Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. Frank Hu and their associates, Dr. David Katz and the True Health Initiative (THI). Their actions, as described in a recent JAMA article, are unethical, distort the results of important scientific research, and, in our opinion, are false and harmful to Texas A&M University and its faculty. These are serious matters that undermine the values espoused by your institution and must be corrected immediately.
I trust you were as surprised as I was after reading the JAMA article and ask that you take a look at the outrageous actions by THI. JAMA found that THI and several of its council members, including Harvard faculty Dr. Willett and Dr. Hu, mischaracterized scientific research and falsely accused Texas A&M scientists of selling out to industry interests. According to JAMA, THI not only broke journal embargo policy but apparently used automated bots to flood the email inbox of the Editor in Chief of the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Several of your faculty are involved as council members or advisers of THI and collaborated with THI in their effort to discredit scientific evidence that runs contrary to their ideology. I can assure you that Texas A&M’s research is driven by science. Period.
In addition to my concern about JAMA findings, I am attaching an illustration Dr. Willett presented at a cardiology conference to attack a distinguished Texas A&M professor and the university itself as being influenced by industry. This unsubstantiated claim has been independently rejected and shown to be false in the JAMA article.
At this time, we have no hard basis to show that these actions against Texas A&M and its faculty are endorsed or condoned by your institution, and we hope we can work together to resolve this problem. Such resolution should include a serious assessment by Harvard of its affiliation with THI and a comprehensive ethical review into any Harvard faculty involved with THI. Several scientists have severed ties with THI because of the issues discussed in this letter. Texas A&M applauds the stand taken by these scientists and encourages Harvard to show the same courage.
Texas A&M asks that Harvard join us for a purely scientific approach to nutrition for the sake of public health and public trust and reject the politics and unethical actions of THI that have sought to discredit science and interfere in the scientific process.
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