By Russell K. King, HHRA Executive Director
Living, as we do, during an era overwhelmed by misinformation, disinformation, mistrust, grifters, posers, and pretenders, integrity is an increasingly rare and valuable quality. For a nonprofit organization like the HHRA, integrity is essential.
By funding the Heartland Study, we are seeking the answer to a controversial question: Are there health problems for mothers and infants that correlate to higher exposure of agricultural chemicals? Why is that controversial? Because there are people who insist they already know the answer and, regardless of whether they insist it’s “yes” or “no,” they prefer we don’t ask. They have vested interests in the answers they promote and fear an unbiased scientific inquiry may produce an answer that does not support those interests.
A vested interest—”a strong personal interest in something because you could get an advantage from it,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary—is deadly to integrity. We don’t know whether we’re being told the truth or being told what advances your interest, so we can’t fully believe you. Doubt will endure and undermine your message.
Thankfully, the HHRA has no vested interest in the outcome of the Heartland Study. The chair of the HHRA Science Advisory Committee insists we must be “agnostic about the outcome,” and the chair of the HHRA Board of Directors insists we must not “get ahead of the data.” The principle investigator for the Heartland Study oft reminds us to “always let the science lead.” As the HHRA executive director, I don’t care what the answer is, but I’m certain the question must be asked. The HHRA and the scientists working on the Heartland Study are not out to prove the answer is yes or no, but to learn whether the answer is yes or no. Likewise, our donors are supporting the effort to find “the” answer not “an” answer. There are no foregone conclusions here.
All of which points to the integrity of our mission and our work. Integrity is demonstrated and enhanced by transparency, which is why the HHRA makes public its IRS determination letter, audited financials, bylaws (including our conflict of interest policy), strategic plan, gift acceptance policy, volunteers and staff, and the Heartland Study’s methods paper, published in a peer-reviewed journal. Such transparency has already earned the highest award from Candid.
Integrity yields many positive results. First, the people and foundations that support the HHRA can know that the money they donate is being used for its stated purpose. Second, and more importantly, the people who will eventually learn of our outcomes and recommendations, if any, can know that they can trust what they’re being told. That trust will make it more likely that our work will be used in improving public health. And that is what it’s all about.