Market News

 November 26, 2019
Why scientists defend dangerous industries

 By the time he stepped down, in 2017, David Michaels had been the top official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for seven years, the longest anybody has held that post. He had a tenured position to return to --- professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University --- but he didn't stop getting involved in policy. In July 2018, Michaels attended a packed hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to restrict what studies may be used to regulate pollution.

Like dozens of other commenters, Michaels opposed the draft rule. In fact, in the hearing's first two hours, only two people clearly stated support for it, and both had direct ties to industries affected by pollution laws. The scene could have come straight from Michaels's own research into how companies react to science that threatens their financial health: Industry representatives questioned the quality of studies that the EPA commonly uses to set limits on the amount of chemicals that factories can legally emit.

In his forthcoming book, The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception (Oxford University Press), Michaels collects recent examples of industries not just questioning science but manipulating it. Often the manipulation involves private laboratories, but he also cites numerous examples of scientists at colleges taking industry grants and delivering skewed results that promote the interests of their funders.

The Chronicle spoke with Michaels about the problem, how academe contributes to it, and how to reduce the risks of the human tendency to please your funders.

You identify a pattern in the behavior of decision makers at companies when they're threatened with regulation. Tell me how that works?

It has become standard operating procedure for corporations to attempt to manufacture scientific uncertainty when they're faced with allegations that their products or their activities cause harm. Rather than saying, "Let's get to the bottom of this. Let's have an independent and unconflicted evaluation," the instinct is to hire corrupt scientists and to blow smoke. The point of the book is this is done so widely now. The food industry does this. The automobile industry does this. Even the National Football League.

These activities have contributed to some of the really significant epidemics faced in the United States today. That includes obesity, diabetes, the opioid epidemic, and lung disease and cancer related to air pollution.

How do you know this is happening? What's the evidence?

Because of court cases, many of these documents have come out. It follows the patterns of the tobacco industry in many ways. The corporations know if it looks like you're doing research, but you ensure that whatever scientists say is, "More research is needed" or "We just don't know what the answers are," that puts off regulation very successfully and helps defeat litigation.

How do academic scientists get wrapped up in this bad science?

There are academic scientists who receive funding, in some cases large amounts, to provide studies that are designed to find certain answers. We see that commonly, for example, in the nutrition literature, where the way a study is designed is very clearly going to give you a certain answer. Also scientists who do risk assessments, who build in assumptions that essentially guarantee that only the highest levels of exposures will be found to be dangerous. And then those scientists will appear in court, or in regulatory proceedings, for the corporation in question.

Theoretically, those scientists should divulge who's paying them, but there are so many examples where that isn't the case, where it's come out later that the academic scientist was paid.

Are there policies you would want to see colleges adopt?

At minimum, academic institutions should require professors to disclose conflicts of interest. Institutions should report these conflicts to the public, on their websites. In submitting papers for publication, the failure of academics to disclose financial conflicts should be treated as a violation of academic integrity.

Professors trade on the reputations of their universities. Universities should prohibit professors from putting their names, or at least their affiliations, on research in which the sponsor, rather than the researcher, has the ability to control or publish the findings or to have significant say in how the data are presented or analyzed.

Contracts with private funders should be transparent and the details publicly disclosed.

Academic freedom, while of great importance, is not unlimited. Universities have rejected the right of professors to advocate Holocaust denialism or white supremacism in the classroom. Many schools of public health reject funding from the tobacco industry. We in the academic community need to have a very serious discussion about the use of university resources, including reputation, to support activities that harm the public or the planet.

Is there anything about academe that makes it vulnerable to this kind of catering to funders?

As many academics know, in most institutions, tenure is not what it used to be. Even tenured professors are under great pressure to bring in outside funding, both to support themselves and to do the research they need to publish and advance.

I have a lot of sympathy for academic scientists who have to raise research money. Once you bring in research money, you staff a laboratory, you have younger scientists and students working for you. There's great pressure to try to continue to raise that same money, because people rely on you for their income.

That, then, leads to both unconscious and, occasionally, conscious decisions to do things that favor the results needed by the corporation that funds you.

Imagine an assistant professor, trying to get tenure. Would you counsel them not to take any corporate grants?

No, I think each case has to be looked at individually. The most important thing is to be absolutely open about the study. But if it appears that the research is something the company needs in order to defend their product, I would stay away from that.

What we need is a system where corporations that make potentially dangerous products fund the research, but the research is done through a mechanism where the funder doesn't control who's chosen to do the study, or the study's methods or interpretation. There are models for this. You could do it through the National Institutes of Health. The Health Effects Institute is jointly funded by the transportation industry and the EPA, and its research has a great deal of independence from the funders.

This isn't a new idea, that corporations should create a pool of money from which scientists could draw for research, without creating a direct relationship between companies and scientists. Do you really think it'll happen?

For the health of the public, we need unconflicted science. The producers of these products need unconflicted science as well. In the long run, having corrupt science may allow them to sell a product for a few more years. But in many cases, those behaviors end up costing the company quite a bit of money. Two examples are Johnson & Johnson and Bayer, which purchased Monsanto. These companies are facing very large punitive-damage awards not simply because their products caused disease, but because the way they attempted to manipulate the science around those products has made jurors want to penalize them.

Do you have any conflicts of interest to disclose?

Yes, I put them in the book. When I was at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, I had no conflicts of interest, because when you're an assistant secretary for the federal government, you can't actually have any financial relationships other than the government. Because OSHA has authority to investigate whistleblower complaints in any publicly held corporation, I couldn't own shares of stock in any company.

Since leaving OSHA, which has now been almost three years, I've been involved in six court cases, three for the defense and three for the plaintiffs. I described them in the book. I was involved as a fact witness, not an expert witness, in one of the Johnson & Johnson talc ovarian-cancer cases. I wasn't paid for that work.

What made you think we need a book like The Triumph of Doubt now? You published a book called Doubt Is Their Product in 2008?

With the coming of the Trump administration, I saw two things. One was that some of the same product-defense scientists whom I had written about 10 years ago as trying to influence government regulatory agencies now were being put into positions to run those agencies. The other thing I saw was that this approach has become so common across all industries. It isn't simply the oil industry and the chemical industry. It became used so widely. This is an insult to science and to scientists who have worked so hard on protecting the public.