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Magnetism: Core Values As Connectors, Not Constraints

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How one organization found integrity and transparency to be a boon to new membership.

Core values can both drive value and serve as connectors to a broader ecosystem. Ensuring that values serve as the basis for organizational decisions from the board to the staff level pays multiple dividends. But what about values makes them connectors and not constraints?

As Federal funding for scientific research becomes increasingly limited, the food and beverage industry plays a key role in advancing food safety and nutrition science. At the same time, industry-funded research is subject to intense scrutiny as a result of various real and perceived biases related to its source of funding.

To separate the funding from the science, the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS) revised and updated for publication a set of ‘Guiding Principles for Funding Food Science and Nutrition Research’ to provide conflict-of-interest guidance protecting the integrity and credibility of the scientific record.

These guiding principles are an extension of our core value of scientific integrity. We reflect on this and our other three core values—transparency, collaboration and public benefit—to see what our experience has been over our initial year as an independent organization.

What stands out immediately is not how our core values constrain what we do but how they help expand and leverage our efforts to deliver science with impact and enhance informed communities. This is particularly important as consumers, competitors and other organizations grow more sensitive to ‘greenwashing,’ signaling that now is a good time to reflect, refine and modernize our core values for today. Values only have value if lived.

It turns out that scientific integrity is magnetic. Focusing on research ethics and promoting scientific integrity among nutrition and food safety professionals and scholars has attracted new members to our organization. Talk about starting off on the right foot!

Both scientific integrity and evidence-based action that benefits the entire food and beverage ecosystem turn out to be helpful to growth. And yes, we weren’t expecting to find that. Taking a leadership role by organizing webinars and collaborations on the topic and working to support high-integrity science is its own reward. But recognition by outside authorities like our platinum ratings by GuideStar and participation as a signatory to the TOP Guidelines associated with the Center for Open Science are helpful endorsements.

Due to our focus on transparency, we fully disclose the funding of our research and share our methods and data with the broader scientific community—even the occasional critic. We pay extra to make each science article we support “free to read” in peer-reviewed journals. We often follow up with news releases to mobilize that knowledge for public benefit. And we connect journalists to researchers to ensure accurate science is reported.

What’s a little disconcerting is that the occasional critics that call on us to be even more transparent aren’t very transparent themselves. We disclose funding levels and awardees for all of our projects. We post our bylaws and our code of conduct on our website. It’s a bit odd to be criticized for lack of transparency from organizations that don’t disclose that information themselves.

IAFNS collaborates with over 120 organizations, including international regulatory agencies, public health nonprofits and patient advocacy groups. We find that meetings and webinars with broad themes touching on the health interests of NGOs, agencies and professional groups are all enhanced by including those perspectives. Also, as a scientific nonprofit we don’t engage in regulatory or policy issues so must ensure that our collaborations are research based.

We only fund projects that have a public benefit. All of our work needs to have a common benefit defined as supporting science that bears on improving the health status of the public. We require that all projects be approved by the Board Program Committee, of which more than 60% of the members are from the public sector. That panel reviews a charter for every project to ensure that the objectives and approach proposed align with IAFNS’ core values, and that the outcome informs public health. IAFNS requires that a majority of the Board Program Committee respond and that all respondents indicate approval to move forward. Freely accessible data, projects and webinars are also a public benefit. And not just generically so, but by adding knowledge about sodium, carbohydrates, chemical safety, food pathogens and emerging topics.

Revisiting our core values has allowed us to appreciate how much they enable us to leverage new connections with experts, public health organizations and professional communities. We were a little surprised at how charismatic core values like scientific integrity can be and how we pay a price to be transparent (but will stick with it anyway). We’ve also learned how important it is to be careful in collaborative contexts, and the surprising new ways we benefit public health.


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