A recent lawsuit against Monsanto offers a clear and troubling view of industry strategies that skew research for the benefit of business. In a lawsuit over the possible carcinogenicity of the pesticide Roundup, plaintiffs’ lawyers suing Monsanto accuse the company of writing an academic study concluding that the active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, is not harmful. Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used weedkiller and is essential for the successful cultivation of genetically modified crops such as corn and soybeans, which are resistant to the pesticide.
Ghostwriting remains ubiquitous in some areas of university research; in 2010, I participated in the drafting of a Senate report on the issue. Studies written by companies and then published in scientific journals with academic authors have been used to influence government decisions, court cases, and even medical practice. Many universities have been caught up in ghostwriting scandals, including Harvard University, Brown University, Stanford University, and Emory University.
The study currently under review was published in 2000 in Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology, the journal of the International Society of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. On closer inspection, the ghostwriting accusations seem unconvincing, and Science the magazine reports that university officials have investigated and dismissed the charges.
Monsanto has also vigorously denied the ghostwriting claims and defends the integrity of the study on a blog: “The article also went through the journal’s rigorous peer review process before being published. “
But the term “rigorous” is hardly an accurate description for the newspaper. Indeed, a glance at the journal’s history offers a revealing window into the industry of creating and packaging junk science with the appearance of academic rigor.
“Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology is a vanity journal that publishes mercenary science created by polluters and producers of toxic chemicals to create uncertainty over the science behind public health and environmental protections. says David Michaels, professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health. (Michaels recently returned to this post after serving as a trustee of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.)
The problem is, it’s not just Monsanto, and it’s not just this newspaper. Companies regularly buy academics to make their offer, recasting industry talking points to create the beginnings of an alternative science canon.
The story here is long and overwhelming. In 2002, several academics and public health activists sent a letter to Elsevier complaining that the journal lacked transparency and a conflict of interest policy, and that it could not demonstrate the editorial independence of the sponsors. corporate. A few years later, I began to study the membership and the journal of the ISRTP and to go through the minutes of the meetings of the society.
The year before the journal published the Roundup study, the company held its June 1999 board meeting in Washington, DC, in the office of Keller and Heckman, the leading chemical industry law firm. In a recent court case, for example, Keller and Heckman represented the Vinyl Institute in a lawsuit to overturn the 2012 Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting toxics emitted during PVC production. Keller and Heckman is also promoting itself as the premier law firm for the tobacco and e-vapor industries. The minutes of the June meeting mention the presence of a member of Keller and Heckman as well as representatives of several trade associations in the chemical industry. The February 2002 minutes also record the meeting that took place in Keller and Heckman’s office in DC and indicate that future meetings will also be held at the law firm.
“[I]It’s unusual to see a regulatory toxicology journal come out of a law firm! says Dr Lynn Goldman, Dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University and one of the signatories of the 2002 letter.
“Organizing your meetings by a business law firm is obviously inappropriate – unless you are not so much a scientific society as a bogus scientific outlet for the corporate clients and funders of the journal’s authors. Says Jennifer Sass, Senior Scientist. who specializes in chemical policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council and is another of the signatories to the 2002 letter. After reviewing the Roundup study published in 2000, Sass says it doesn’t appear to be “what we call normally ghost writing “. The study’s recognition section, which is hidden behind the journal’s paywall, clearly notes Monsanto’s strong involvement in the science of the study. *
“These people wouldn’t be able to stuff the scientific literature so successfully – muddy the waters and create the false impression of controversy – if they didn’t have their reference journals like Reg Tox Pharm,” She adds.
Examining the journal’s editorial board, Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts University who studies conflicts of interest and corporate influence on science, notes that industry consultants litter the journal’s credits. Indeed, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief is Gio Gori, a former tobacco industry consultant. In 1998, Gori partnered with Steven J. Milloy of JunkScience.com in a letter to Science magazine criticizing a story about tobacco consultants. I later released Milloy in the New Republic for being part of the tobacco company payroll while writing articles for FoxNews.com that denigrated the science of second-hand smoke. And, in 2007, Gori published an op-ed in the Washington post calling the science of second-hand smoke “bogus”.
Gori’s tobacco work, says Krimsky, “places its credibility at its lowest.”
Other controversial members of the journal’s editorial board include Michael L. Dourson and Dennis J. Paustenbach. Dourson is the chairman of TERA, a science consultancy firm that was investigated in 2014 by Inside Climate News and the Center for Public Integrity highlighting the group’s intimate ties to industry. Documents made public during a tobacco dispute highlight Dourson’s work for the industry.
Asked about his tobacco advice, Dourson said, “Jesus frequented prostitutes and tax collectors. He had dinner with them. He continued, “We are an independent group doing the best science for all of these things. Why should we exclude anyone who needs help? “
In 2005, the the Wall Street newspaper published a front page article questioning the role of Paustenbach and his company ChemRisk in a case that became the basis of the film Erin Brockovitch. According to Newspaper, ChemRisk was hired to reanalyze data from a study that found chromium-contaminated groundwater was linked to a range of public health illnesses. Chemrisk’s data reanalysis was then published in a new study under the names of two Chinese researchers without any mention of ChemRisk’s involvement, and was promoted for the next decade in court cases and regulatory records. After the Newspaper article, the study was withdrawn and environmental groups sought to have Paustenbach censored by the Society of Toxicology.
Seven years later, the Chicago Tribune wrote a critical investigative article on Paustenbach’s work for the chemical industry on flame retardants, and the Center for Public Integrity published a survey last year noting Paustenbach’s work for Ford Motor Company to minimize the dangers of asbestos in car brake pads.
“It could be some kind of rogue newspaper that looks like a newspaper,” Krimsky says.
The problem is, it’s not just Monsanto, and it’s not just this newspaper. Companies regularly buy academics to make their offer, recasting industry talking points to create the beginnings of an alternative science canon. Universities do little to stop it, while academic journals, sometimes prestigious, are often complicit. Perhaps public shame remains the most – or the only – drug that works.
* UPDATE — March 28, 2017: This article has been updated with a new quote from Jennifer Sass.