The NHL Doesn't Donate To Head Trauma Research, And That's Not A Bad Thing

We shouldn't be encouraging biased industries to fund the science behind it.

Jan 26 2017, 5:07pm

The NHL is stingy when it comes to donating to brain trauma research. According to a recent USA Today report, the league has "not given money to any of the four centers leading research into neurodegenerative diseases, specifically the question of why so many football players and hockey players develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)."

This, of course, differs from the NFL, as that league reportedly has donated $100 million to various research groups and initiatives. In the USA Today report, author Nancy Armour acknowledges criticism of how the NFL has used its donations to have a say in what kind of research is done, and by whom. Yet she also writes, "but at least it has donated."

The implication? The NHL should be ashamed. And open up its checkbook. But is that a good idea?

The problem with encouraging biased industries to get involved in science that could directly affect their bottom lines is, well, read that last part again. Consider the NFL's controversial donations to the National Institutes of Health. The league being in the room and/or loop for key research conversations and decisions wasn't merely a side effect or unintended consequence of its financial generosity. As I found reading through thousands of pages of released documents, it was the entire purpose of it. This isn't to say that the NFL (which previously conducted its own shady and discredited concussion studies) took a Big Tobacco/Sugar/Oil approach to influencing the NIH, blatantly telling investigators what it wanted to find and steering or shading subsequent research to make that happen. Studies have shown that level of book-cooking isn't necessary.

An analysis of 30 studies found that research funded by pharmaceutical companies were "more likely to have outcomes favoring the sponsor than were studies with other sponsors." Another study found that the data itself is not biased in industry-funded studies, but that the interpretation of that data "may be slanted to favor the sponsor's product." This is a subtle but important difference: it's not that the researchers have to be convinced to put their hand on the scales to skew their data. Rather, just by knowing where the money comes from, they can be subconsciously biased towards a specific outcome.

As such, we shouldn't be demanding the NHL, NFL, and other obviously biased industries participate in science, even if it is just by writing checks. Instead, we should be funding public health issues that affect millions of people, such as head trauma, with public funding. Private companies should read the results when they're published, just like everybody else.