An expert panel on academic research on Friday blasted the University of Maryland’s handling of two studies of fortified chocolate milk — funded in part by the company producing the beverage — that led to press releases touting its benefits for athletes and others who exercise.
The panel found “a concerning lack of understanding of the basic principles of conflict of interest in research at all levels of the process” from U-Md.’s administration and faculty to a state-funded program that oversees industrial partnerships.
College Park officials in January acknowledged that two U-Md. news releases about the beverage Fifth Quarter Fresh were troubling, particularly one in December that suggested the product showed significant benefits on “concussion-related measures” for high school football players. The data presented in the news releases, citing research from a College Park associate professor, was preliminary and had not been peer-reviewed.
“Press releases should never include study data or conclusions, even preliminary, until they have been subject to peer review, and, under most circumstances, accepted for publication in an appropriate peer-reviewed journal or book,” the panel concluded.
The panel also said it was “troubling” that the associate professor, Jae Kun Shim, appeared to endorse the beverage in the press releases, although the endorsement did not violate any written policy.
The five-member panel, convened by U-Md., included senior faculty at College Park and the vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins University. It was chaired by a former U-Md. provost, Ann Wylie.
Fifth Quarter Fresh is produced by Fluid Motion, of Keedysville, Md. The company provided $20,000 for two studies that cost a total of $200,000. The grants were awarded in 2013 and 2014 to Shim, who has been on the faculty of U-Md. since 2005. The Maryland Industrial Partnerships program provided the rest of the funding.
The university said the panel found no wrongdoing by Fluid Motion, but U-Md. is returning the $20,000 to the company, as well as roughly $200,000 in other funding to Shim’s laboratory from a dairy cooperative called Allied Milk Producers “out of an abundance of caution and to remove any perception of conflict of interest.”
In addition, the university deleted the two news releases from its websites.
Fluid Motion said in a statement that it was “disappointed to learn that the University of Maryland, Maryland Industrial Partnerships program and Dr. Shim have mishandled the chocolate milk research. They represented that they would provide reliable and unbiased work that would be acceptable to the research community.”
Shim did not immediately reply Friday to an emailed request for comment.
“While we have every reason to believe this was an isolated incident, any deviations from accepted practices in the responsible conduct of research cannot be tolerated,” U-Md.’s vice president for research, Patrick O’Shea, wrote Friday in a letter to the community. He said that any potential sanctions against faculty or staff members involved in the episode would be “confidential personnel matters.”
The panel issued 15 recommendations to improve U-Md.’s oversight of industry-funded research and communications. The university pledged swift action to fix shortcomings.
Universities nationwide routinely engage in business-sponsored research. The Maryland Industrial Partnerships program 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.
Here is the panel’s report on the episode: