Science fair project takes on major corporate claims

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In 2004, two 14 year old girls in a New Zealand secondary school conducted an interesting science project. They wanted to test their favorite drinks for vitamin C content. Using a simple iodine titration technique, when they tested the blackcurrant drink Ribena, the girls stumbled across some surprising results. The Ribena brand has been a staple of the UK market since the 1930’s, but despite the advertising claim that “the blackcurrants in Ribena have four times the vitamin C of oranges,” the girls found almost no vitamin C content in the fruit drink, in fact, it appeared that Ribena had far less vitamin C than almost every other product they tested.

The girls then sent a letter to the makers of Ribena, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), about their findings, then an email, finally a phone call. The girls received little response from the corporate giant:

“They didn’t even really answer our questions. They just said it’s the blackcurrants that have it, then they hung up,” Jenny said.

But the story was picked up by the media, a TV consumer affairs program, Fair Go, and later by the New Zealand Commerce Commission. Because of a simple science fair project, GSK pleaded guilty to 15 charges of misleading advertising and health claims, and were fined almost $200,000 in 2007.

But there is a very sad ending to this story. The New Zealand Herald did a follow-up with the girls, who in 2007 were in their last year of high school when GSK received their verdict.

[The girls] both have big plans but neither is pursuing science. Devathasan, 18, wants to be a lawyer, and eventually a judge, and will study law and politics at Auckland University. And for Suo, 17, rather than being put off by the media which descended from around the world, she wants to be a part of it. She’s off to broadcast school in Christchurch to study journalism.

These girls, at a very young age, provided clear evidence that refuted another group’s claims, changed public opinion, and recieved media attention while doing so. Many veterans scientists can’t claim this. This is science at its most flashy, but it was not enough to keep either of these girls interested in pursueing careers in science. Obviously these are ambitious young women, dedicated to their education. But bummer for science.

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