The bulletin atop a University of Maryland news release was provocative: “Concussion-related measures improved in high school football players who drank new chocolate milk, U-Md. study shows.”
But an update posted below that finding in late December added a backpedaling caveat rarely seen from a major research university: “This press release refers to study results that are preliminary and have not been subjected to the peer review scientific process.”
The December news release touting a beverage called Fifth Quarter Fresh has become a significant embarrassment in College Park as officials scramble to learn how and why it was published prematurely. The beverage is produced by a small western Maryland company that helped fund the study, through a program based at U-Md. that connects businesses with universities for product-development research.
On Friday, U-Md. convened a high-level panel to review the episode. Chaired by former U-Md. provost Ann Wylie, the panel also includes the vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins University, Denis Wirtz, as well as College Park’s dean of behavioral and social sciences and two senior faculty members who monitor conflict-of-interest issues.
Patrick O’Shea, the university’s vice president and chief research officer, said he assembled the panel because he wants to ensure that College Park’s communications about scientific research are trustworthy at a university with a global reputation for research prowess. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year flow through U-Md. for research and development.
“I don’t want this kind of thing to happen again because I value the information we give to the public. The information should be reliable,” O’Shea said. “I also value the reputation of the university. We have the public interest at heart, and the reputation of the university is connected to that. The public should be able to rely on what we say.”
Wylie said the panel will move quickly. Her questions: “What are best practices, and what happened here? We want the university to do better.”
Universities nationwide routinely engage in business-sponsored research. The Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program, or MIPS, is part of a technology enterprise unit within the school of engineering at College Park. It has coordinated more than 1,000 grants since 1987, providing state and business funding to research faculty at all of Maryland’s public universities.
MIPS teamed Fluid Motion LLC of Keedysville, Md., with Jae Kun Shim, an associate professor of kinesiology at College Park.
Fluid Motion began producing Fifth Quarter Fresh in 2013, said co-founder Richard Doak. The chocolate milk is marketed as a high-protein, post-workout recovery drink. It is sold in Hagerstown area stores and directly to some colleges and high schools, Doak said. Bucknell University is a customer.
Doak and his colleagues wanted to know what effects their beverage would have on consumers. Shim’s research interest was in brain and motor performance control.
In an email, Shim said he won two $100,000 grants through MIPS. One, in August 2013, was to study the effects of post-exercise recovery drinks on strength and endurance. The second, a year later, was to study the effect of the drinks on post-exercise recovery and cumulative minor brain trauma.
In each case, Fluid Motion paid 10 percent, and MIPS paid the rest. Shim said he had no financial interest or other connections to the company.
The university issued a news release about the first study in July. It cited preliminary results that suggested the beverage outperformed competing products by “13 to 17 percent” in helping non-athletes recover muscular endurance after leg extension workouts.
The second news release drew far more attention because it focused on concussions and football, a subject of huge national interest. It was released at about the same time as the movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, a drama about efforts to force the National Football League to take brain-damage issues seriously.
The December release said the second study tracked 474 football players at seven western Maryland high schools in fall 2014. Experimental groups drank Fifth Quarter Fresh after practice and games, and control groups did not. The players were tested before the season, after concussions and after the season to examine their attention span, working memory, nonverbal problem-solving and other cognitive indicators.
“High school football players, regardless of concussions, who drank Fifth Quarter Fresh chocolate milk during the season, showed positive results overall,” Shim said in the release. “Athletes who drank the milk, compared to those who did not, scored higher after the season than before it started, specifically in the areas of verbal and visual memory.”
The claims in the release quickly drew scrutiny from journalists who wanted to see the full study, a routine question. But in this case, there was no formal report. The most that U-Md. could provide to those who asked was a brief PowerPoint slide presentation that charted and graphed some of Shim’s data.
The lack of supporting detail for a university-issued news release boosting a company product was astounding to critics. “The University of Maryland has a burgeoning chocolate-milk concussion scandal on its hands,” wrote Jesse Singal, a senior editor at New York magazine.
Shim said the news release was initiated and developed by the communications office of the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute, which oversees MIPS.
“I believe that any release of information related to public health should be handled carefully,” he wrote to The Washington Post. “In regards to this study, more care could have been taken in releasing preliminary study findings before [the] peer review process.” The two MIPS studies, he said, were the first in his career shared publicly before undergoing peer review.
Shim, 43, who holds a doctorate in kinesiology from Penn State, has been on the College Park faculty since 2005, and he has published more than 60 peer-reviewed journal articles. He said he regularly reviews manuscripts for scientific journals and is an associate editor of the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
“I have devoted my life to research and education, and my work has been guided by integrity and ethics,” Shim said in the email. “Contrary to some of the media reports, researchers have no reason to ‘help’ a company. That is certainly true in this case. My intentions with these studies were to pursue discovery of new knowledge through scientific investigation.”
Shim said he plans to submit manuscripts for peer-review journal publication, a process that can take several months. He said the PowerPoint slides were not meant to be shown to the public as a final product, but were developed as an internal update on the trend of the findings.
Barry Kosofsky, a pediatrics professor and concussion expert at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, reviewed the PowerPoint at The Post’s request. He said that what he read seemed problematic.
“The concern is the data are too thin to draw conclusions,” he said. Kosofsky raised several technical questions about the study and said the public release of the information was “absolutely premature.” But he said the U-Md. researchers should be applauded for trying to bring scientific scrutiny to some important questions.
Doak, 50, a dairy veterinarian, said he regrets the controversy and hopes Shim’s study eventually will be published. He dismissed any notion that his tiny company could wield undue influence over U-Md. communications. “We are the last people that could ‘buy’ College Park,” he said.
Darryll Pines, dean of engineering at U-Md., said he is “perplexed” and “disappointed” about the premature news release. “Obviously it slipped through and missed the filters,” he said. But he defended MIPS as a valuable economic engine for the state.
“We’ve done this for years, and we’ve never had any issues,” Pines said. “This case is an anomaly of major proportions.”