Written by Bill Price
Last spring, I was invited to contribute to a project involving several talented researchers regarding the detection of the herbicide glyphosate in human breast milk. While such a request would normally be in the scope and expectations of my job, I was excited to help as I thought the subject was relevant, topical and interesting. The subject itself, however, was controversial and had received a large amount of media play as well as heated conversation online. This is because glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, an herbicide sprayed on many genetically engineered (GMO) crops, so it has become a focal point for scientists and activists alike. The study found that glyphosate was not detectable in breast milk – which is good news – but these findings have been greeted with cynicism even though it has been confirmed by multiple independent labs.
Early on, the lead author, Dr. Michelle McGuire, and all the co-authors readily agreed that all aspects of the work should be as transparent as possible. This was especially relevant as the work came on the heels of several accusations of hidden conflicts of interest (COI) regarding work in biotech and agricultural research in general. The breast milk study had also required expertise in chemical detection of glyphosate, to which the researchers had reached out to arguably the world authorities on glyphosate, the scientists at Monsanto. All of this combined made it obvious that any publication should thoroughly document any and all potential conflicts of interest. Therefore, when the work was recently published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (PDF file), it was made Open Access, all data was published with the article, and a lengthy full disclosure of COI was given:
The authors’ responsibilities were as follows—MKM, MAM, DAG, and JLV: conceptualized and designed the study; MKM and DAG: designed the glyphosate exposure questionnaire; MKM: oversaw sample and data collection; JMC and KAL: collected the samples and administered the questionnaires; PKJ: over- saw the analysis of the samples at Monsanto; WJP and BS: carried out the statistical analysis; and all authors: read and approved the final manuscript. In 2014, MKM and MAM each received a $10,000 unrestricted research gift from Monsanto; these funds were used to support their research related to human and bovine lactation. These funds were neither needed for nor used to cover the costs associated with the project described in this article, because the milk was already being collected for another project funded by the National Science Foundation (1344288) related to international variation in human milk composition and because additional expenditures associated with the collection of urine samples were negligible. All costs associated with the chemical analysis of milk and urine samples at both Monsanto and Covance were paid for directly by Monsanto. MKM and MAM were once reimbursed for costs associated with economy travel and basic accommodations incurred for a trip they made to St. Louis, Missouri, to discuss study design and assay development with coauthors DAG, PKJ, and JLV at Monsanto. DAG, PKJ, and JLV are employees of Monsanto, which manufactures glyphosate. None of the other authors reported a conflict of interest related to the study.
Everyone involved with this project was aware of its potential to spark controversy. Following presentation of this work at a professional conference in the summer of 2015, Dr. McGuire found herself at the center of a storm of accusations, information requests, and battling adversaries. So it was not unexpected when a colleague sent me notice of an article last week proclaiming: “Monsanto-Linked Study Finds No Monsanto-Linked Herbicide Glyphosate In Breast Milk”. Such headlines are the standard fair for activist sites intending to attract readers and the research team had fully expected to see this kind of response. The real surprise, however, came from who wrote the article, Dr. Emily Willingham. Dr. Willingham has been a respected writer on science subjects, particularly on issues dealing with autism, which made the headline somewhat unexpected. It did not stop there, however. The article itself opened with:
“The study, however, is weighted with conflicts of interest that include having three Monsanto employees as authors. The first two authors also have received grants from Monsanto, and the costs of the chemical analyses for the study were covered by Monsanto.”
Further in the article, she continues:
“If we take the advice above to consider the source, this study looks like a big ol’ slumber party involving the journal, the society associated with it, their spokesperson and Monsanto. A read of the conflict-of-interest statement on the McGuire et al. paper sets a number of red flags a-waving”
Upon apparent objections in the comments, this was later updated to:
“If we take the advice above to “consider the source,” the optics on this study could look suspect, involving the journal, the society associated with it, a ”spokesperson” and Monsanto. A read of the conflict-of-interest statement on the McGuire et al. paper will undoubtedly set red flags a-waving for some people”
While the initial statement was toned down, it was clear she was calling into question the legitimacy of the work, not to mention the integrity of the researchers, a professional organization, and the journal itself. Take that as you will, it is her prerogative. It is hard, however, to reconcile these words with those she wrote admonishing others on COI, just six months earlier:
On Twitter she has been a strident advocate of COI disclosure, often taking to task those who questioned it. It was, after all, the best thing to do and would give the best impression. This was emphasized again in a 2015 article
on Forbes where she states:
“To avoid the distraction of suspicion, scientists who genuinely want science to have a voice should make quite clear which baggage they bring to the discussion. Openness on all sides about potential bias clears the way to real scientific engagement.”
Yet here we were, doing just that only to turn around and be sucker punched by the exact same COI advocate for evidently having the wrong associations. In the end, the COI simply gave her a bigger target to aim at. “Real scientific engagement” apparently wasn’t on the menu this time around. So much for the argument of perception and openness.
But there was more. In 2012 Dr. Willingham had also written the “5 Changes Consumers Want To See In Science News”. Number one on that list:
“1. Stop with sensationalist headlines. It was the top complaint, something one commenter described as “the worst offense” (although apparently, something else below requires the death penalty). Quit with the sensationalism already, they say. I know. That’s not gonna happen because headlines pull clicks and clicks drive revenue. So I’ll stick with my standing advice to readers: Skip the headline.”
“Stop with the sensationalist headlines”. To be honest, I actually laughed when I read that and I don’t think I need to point back to the “click bait” headline of her recent article to demonstrate the hypocrisy. It is clear there is a “Do as I say, not as I do” mentality operating here. By emphasizing Monsanto and COI over the science and its independent confirmation (discussed only at the end of the second page of the article), Dr. Willingham effectively raised doubts about the findings of the study using sensationalist tactics. Knowing that many people will tend not to read past the first page, wouldn’t it have been more proper to put greater emphasis on the fact that this finding has been confirmed by multiple groups at the beginning of the article?
What does all this matter to me? I’m an old dog in this game and I can, even if begrudgingly, adapt to these “new rules” of extreme disclosure for the years I have left in research. I do, however, have concern for younger researchers out there. Every day I see bright, enthusiastic, motivated people who want to do good science and want to do it right. They rightfully want to define their own standards and expectations for communicating their work, yet they need to do so in an environment where traditional public funding is increasingly scarce and cooperation with outside funding sources is openly encouraged and even expected. They are also often the target audience for self-defined SciComm experts. To these scientists, I simply offer this as a cautionary tale. Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, even if it comes from proclaimed and respected “authorities”. COI may be necessary, but it is no shield. Everything you say (or don’t) can and will be used against you.
For me, I will stick to a tried and true principle. Sure, we can play along with the disclosure-perception game, but no matter what these pundits tell you, the data, the science, and the methods can and do speak for themselves. They always have and they always will. They are immutable to all except more data and more evidence. In this I trust. I would hope you will too.
Written by Guest Expert
Bill Price has a PhD in plant science. He has worked in agricultural research for nearly 40 years and is currently a statistician in the College of Agriculture at the University of Idaho. His work includes diverse topics including but not limited to dairy science, human nutrition, weed science, and benthic microbiology.
Well said, Bill! What a weird and wacky, damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don’t world we live in. So glad you are the statistician on our team. I still can’t adequately wrap my head around the firestorm of doubt and paranoia this simplest of studies (ie., carefully collect milk and analyze it using state-of-the-art methods) created. We must, nonetheless, carry on for the sake of truth and the public good.
This was such a remarkable example of good behavior *not* being rewarded. Astonishing, really. I expect it from Ruskin–who seems to hate all companies except those that fund him. But this was bizarre to see. Purity trolling science.
I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about how hard it is to stay in science, that we don’t value and fund the research enough, how we need more non-academic routes, etc. We need partnerships–especially at Land Grant schools whose mission includes working with companies. Throwing science-heavy companies under the bus isn’t good for funding or for the future of their student’s job options if they search outside academia.
Have fun chucking iceballs from your ivory tower.
“Doubt and paranoia?” Maybe by some. However I have a hard time believing that the folks who orchestrate, sell snake oil and whine the loudest are either. Maybe I am getting old cynical and grumpy. But dishonest and disgusting are the words that occur to me.
The same « argument » of glyphosate in breastmilk has been made in Germany. Of course right on time to feed the « debate » on glyphosate.
You can read a comment in German here :
The same in French, with further notes, here :
The original claim was made by the Green Party, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, based upon tests from a lab co-founded by a notorious anti-GMO activist scientist, Monika Krüger. Hard to believe… they used an ELISA test not suited for fat containing liquids !
The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment followed up with a better – unchallenged – test and found no glyphosate. The press release in English is here :
As this was all running through my twitterz last night, a tweet from @BadAstronomer came through, celebrating NASA working with a company on successful space-related stuff. It’s so strange that in other fields these public-private partnerships are celebrated.
The German BfR work on glyphosate in breast milk was published after our paper was in review, hence we did not refer to it. Their full paper can be accessed here: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/acs.jafc.5b05852
Bill, I’m so disgusted and have been sick about this since I read it. The scientific community better step up quick and start swinging. If every time we speak about the data, the best data from sound experiments, are we going to be torn up by reputable journalists?
I only wish she would have given Benbrook such suspicion. Good luck with that.
I found the hypocrisy displayed by Willingham invalidated everything else she posted. The data, and the independent confirmation of that data will hopefully speak louder than any words from someone who appears to want to play both sides of the court.
What I find interesting about the activist demands for “independent” studies is that so few are actually willing to help fund such studies. I have confronted a few on that issue, and the most common answer was that the government should fund them (often from the same people that claim the FDA is owned by Monsanto).
I would add self-serving to your list. The folks that sell snake oil have to keep people convinced that snake oil is better.
Honestly, most people have no idea what they really mean when they say something like the “government should fund” something. As if there were a bit pot of money that those of us with good intentions and good ideas can just sort of access. No idea how competitive the grant market is, and that so much really important work that gets done is funded by the corporate world. Pretty sure that I would have never gotten funding for such a simplistic study if I had tried to go the federal funding route. And even if I had (probably after 2 resubmissions), that would have added several years to the project. We’d still be collecting the samples…
Such emotional outbursts and petty politics is why people no longer trust scientists.
“Scientific community”? Who is that supposed to be?
“Start swinging”? What’s that supposed to mean?
You make it sound like a cult.
Instead of blaming a reaction to the current situation, you should clean your own houses.
Don’t like being accused of conflicts of interest? Don’t have any.
Don’t like people questioning your results? Be transparent.
Don’t like current trends in science which force you to accept money from industry? Do something about it besides blaming us.
Sounds like scientists playing the blame game instead of organizing to overcome the real threats to science.
People being distrustful of what we hear from scientists, from journalists and from our government is a symptom, it’s not the disease.
The disease is the same disease that is afflicting all of us and all of our institutions. Greed and pride.
You want to argue that someone who’s livelihood depends on some industry is not biased, go for it. Just don’t claim it’s an argument based on science.
If you want to claim that data cannot be (as has not been) manipulated in the history of science, that’s fine too. Just don’t be surprised when people don’t agree.
But why is not the organic and anti-GMO industry reports and pseudoscience not subject to the same scrutiny?
Who says they are not?
Why must everyone bring up the “organics industry” as a scapegoat for everything?
What is the “anti-GMO industry”?
Don’t cast your insecurities on me. I’m not putting blame on anyone. I have no idea who or what “you” represent. I do, however, point out the hypocrisy here. I have every right to object to this. These self appointed oracles deem themselves worthy to continually lecture others on ethics and good behavior. They define the rules and then use them against those that follow them. If you want to criticize my work, fine. Bring it on Bro. That’s how science works and advances. But if you want to disparage my integrity, my experience, or that of my colleagues based on who we are, then I WILL smack you down, and hard. No quarter should be given to such petty behavior. This isn’t high school where we judge one another by the people we associate with.
Yet you offer no solution. The scientific community would love to reach people like you, but you offer no path. You’ve made it clear that you distrust scientists, distrust corporations, distrust the government, and distrust journalists. You are predetermined to reject any and all evidence. This isn’t a one-way street. You have the right to expect honest work, but you also have the obligation to properly inform yourself and give consideration to all views.
I, and others, are proudly and confidently moving forward into the 21st Century. That you can’t recognize the hands reaching out to bring you along is admittedly a problem. That you refuse to acknowledge those hands, however, is your problem.
You are angry, probably rightfully so. But don’t take it out on me.
What insecurity? I am pointing out facts. There are real problems with science today.
What hypocrisy? I am not the one claiming to be infallible based upon my way of knowing the world.
Who am I? Nobody and everybody.
It’s okay with me if you want to vent but please don’t make up any stories about me.
I have said repeatedly that I don’t have any emotional attachments (such as distrust) for tools like science, corporations or government. Each could be used for “good” or for “evil”. What I don’t trust is the collective human race and there is plenty of solid evidence to back up that distrust.
You say I have an obligation to see all views. Fair enough, but so do you. Maybe when you see someone rejecting the science behind GMO safety you should view them differently.
Not as some nut, some idiot, or some enemy, but just as some person who is living in a completely different reality than you and who is an expression of that reality.
Do you judge and condemn your genotype when they don’t express the traits you thought they should? Are you angry with them?
They are just doing the same thing, expressing themselves based upon set conditions.
I don’t know what you are talking about when you say “confidently moving forward into the 21st century”. More wars, more inequality, more social unraveling, more planetary destruction, more species loss, more plastic in the ocean, more junk food?
Sorry, but I don’t equate the passing of time or “new” with “better”.
Here are some ways you could “reach” me and others like me:
Stop treating me like an idiot.
Clean your own house of the vermin that have taken up residence there.
Solve people’s problems with your knowledge rather than solving cash-flow problems of corporations.
Have more compassion for people who seem to see the world differently. Meet them where they are. Listen to them if you want them to listen to you.
Here are some solutions:
-Create a new public science department dedicated to solving the problems as ranked by the public. Fund it with half the defense budget and from money from the department of homeland security (which should be phased out). All research to be made free to the world. Make it into a reality TV show and fund it that way too. Get some scientists on the air for the public to see and know. Show what it’s like, what are the problems scientists are faced with?
-Get rid of all money in politics and stop the revolving door between government and industry.
-Create a food system that has as it’s number one goal to deliver the most healthy and sustainable food for all Americans as possible in ways that do not harm the planet.
I should have said anti-GMO activists, but you got the idea. And you are correct – pretty much every study ever issues or funded by the organics industry and/or anti-GMO activists has been torn to shreds by actual scientists.
I wouldn’t know. I don’t bother reading obviously biased research.
I don’t believe organics is anything other than a marketing scheme hiding some bits of truth. Just like GMO.
I did find Emily Willingham’s response strange. What you want people to do is to declare possible conflicts of interest so they can be evaluated. A potential conflict of interest does not invalidate a study – the hypothesis, methods, analysis and interpretation do that. However, if someone hides a potential conflict of interest, it suggests they are going to hide other things as well.
This study is a little bit out of my field (but not too far) and what I have read so far I have been pretty impressed by the thoroughness of the work done. You guys should be congratulated on that.
I suspect the real issue Emily Willingham might have had is that Monsanto was involved in the work, not that the work was corrupted. If so, that is what she should have written. This whole business of not working with industry to maintain some sort of purity is just ludicrous. The only point of note when working with industry is to have a specific agreement about publication, so they can’t hold up results they do not like. I would much rather be working with industry and explaining why they should change the way they do things, instead of shouting from the sidelines where you have a much greater chance of being completely ignored.
COI declaration. I have published papers with scientists who worked for Monsanto at the time, as well as scientists who previously worked for Monsanto, and scientists who went on to work for Monsanto. I have done all the same regarding Syngenta. I have also in the past received research funding from both Monsanto and Syngenta. Neither of them give me any now.
The asymmetry of it underscores the point that COI is really not the core issue, but rather a strawman deflecting from the real issue – disdain for industrial science. The innumerable discussions about Seralini’s work and Honeycutt’s breastmilk results demonstrate a very clear divide on this point. Scientists want to discuss the quality of the science and its validity, generally disregarding the fact that Seralini and Honeycutt were both funded by anti-GMO interests. Anti-GMO sorts defend the work of both by railing against the corruption of the industry-funded scientists who oppose them, as though the magnitude of opposition were somehow validating of the veracity of the science. And all the while, the anti-GMO folks disregard the COI of Seralini and Honeycutt while flinging it willy-nilly at those who disagree with them.
The other fascinating asymmetry regards funding. Anti-GMO folks pan anything that smacks of having been funded by industry, yet they demand in-depth studies be performed. Who do they feel should fund those studies? Why, industry of course! Talk up about setting things up for failure. Land grant institutions can’t do the work they once did without external funding since public funding (with the exception of tuition) has declined so dramatically over the past several decades. Thus, external funding – including industry funding – has become vital to the success of the land-grant mission. So, the land-grant and other public universities and colleges are now being tossed out as industry-tainted. What is left?
The anti-GMO wing is pushing all unbiased research into an “unacceptable” bin, thereby validating in their minds the work produced by their own sycophants. It is a troubling development for science and science education. We definitely have our hands full in learning to speak this language of neo-Luddism.
Agreed. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t. Only “not” damned if you convert to their faith-based religion (and don’t mean for that to refer to any sort of regular faith tradition; in full disclosure, I’m Lutheran).
If scientific method is followed and our “tricks of the trade” (e.g., randomization, blinding, controls, repitition, statistics, peer review) deployed, then COI are likely well managed, and it doesn’t matter who funds a project. As they say: data are data are data. Public-private partnerships are critical (and will always be) to answer the pressing questions to which society wants answers. Most scientists at land-grant universities spend years in training (between undergrad and post-doc, I was in college 13 years, and continue my training every time I to go a scientific conference). We write grants constantly; most don’t get funded these days, and we endure many sleepless nights worrying about how we will support our students and research associates let alone get our research done. I always liken this to what it would be like for a school lunch lady to have to somehow raise the funds to buy all the food the kids need. For our glyphosate project, we were particularly frugal (I call it “green” science) because we were already collecting the human milk samples for an NSF-funded project designed to characterize milk microbes and complex carbohydrates in 11 populations around the globe. We didn’t have the in-house expertise or personnel to develop the type of analysis needed to detect glyphosate in human milk, and teaming up with the analytical chemists at Monsanto was a perfect solution! Let me make it very clear that we reached out to Monsanto to help make this project happen. They didn’t reach out to us. Furthermore, if we had relied on public funding we probably won’t have been able to do the project; surely, we wouldn’t even have data yet, let alone a paper published in the world’s top peer-reviewed nutrition journal.
I can understand how people who haven’t had our training don’t understand the process of science, and all that we do to both get the research done and get it published. I understand why they’re sometimes confused when current findings conflict with past ones. And I understand when the public gets frustrated when the <0.001% (I made that number up based on my perceptions!) of scientists is found to have done something wrong. What I don't understand is how someone like Ms. Honeycutt, who clearly cares about children but knows practically nothing about science, can be so vicious and dismissive to someone like me, who also cares deeply about children but is a well-trained and well-respected scientist. And I don't understand why people like Gary Ruskin and Emily Willingham feel like they are somehow justified to publicly attack me but then won't even have a reasonable phone conversation with me. If we can't talk about these things, then we can't solve them. It seems like these folks missed some basic lessons on how to treat other human beings. They're behaving like playground bullies.
For me, I will continue to be open and honest about what I do. I will do my best to keep an open mind and admit when I've made a mistake (we all do!). And I will apologize when I have done something to hurt another person. These are basic aspects of good human behavior that I wish we would all remember.
Part of the difficulty lies in ascribing nefarious motives to all who disagree. It is often difficult to realize that people on both sides of most scientific (or social) debates are genuinely interested in a better life, but disagree over how that is to be achieved. Instead, we tend to ascribe to one another the most heinous traits and attitudes. Once that happens, we feel unjustified in listening to the other party, as they are not credible, and perhaps even downright evil. They are no longer worthy of treatment as a possible equal, or even of common decency. They must simply be severely weakened or destroyed. And so we draw up battle lines and bludgeon one another. Not very productive, as it only serves to entrench people in their existing positions.
I think we will all have to have keen persistence, patience, and empathy to get through these disagreements. I wasn’t taught about such things in grad school, but I’m glad to see growing training in science education and communication for upcoming students. Hopefully they will be more effective than some of us old coots. Pamela Ronald at Berkeley is a great example of a rationale and understanding approach, in my opinion. She’s been villified in the organic community for her science-based interest in utilizing GE crops in organic agriculture, and has some excellent science and reasoning for her position. She presents her case in a most patient and logical manner. One may disagree with her, but it isn’t because she delivers her message like an attack dog. They are compelled to argue against her informed position. Ad hominem only makes her opponents look like mindless bullies.
How does one not have conflicts of interest when funding from external sources is required by all university researchers to conduct their work? Are you assuming that federal grants, and private and commodity funds all come without baggage or cronyism? Further, the success rate for the “unbiased” federal grants is low – about 2 to 5% of federal grant proposals in USDA-AFRI and NSF are funded right now, depending on program. And each grant program has specific areas of emphasis that may not include your particular interest. Getting competitive grants to fund your research is extremely challenging these days, so simply telling academic researchers to have no conflicts of interest is naive in the extreme. It would be wonderful if that were not the case, but that’s life.
Please define what you mean by transparency. What does it look like to you?
We are doing something about funding. We seek funding from a wide range of sources, and continue to press our legislators to provide funding for national basic and applied research. If you’d like to join your voice to that effort, we would be much obliged. And very few of us feel “forced” to take money from industry. As Shelley pointed out, there are excellent resources in industry, and excellent industry scientists who are our colleagues in discovery. I’ve had many fruitful collaborations with these colleagues over the years that have addressed a range of issues. Some discoveries were favorable to industry, others were not, but I never felt coerced to change results to make someone in marketing happy. I have no more qualms about using industry funds and industry collaborations to pursue a relevant question than I would about obtaining support from AFRI or NSF.
“How does one not have conflicts of interest when funding from external sources is required by all university researchers to conduct their work?”
It sounds like the system is flawed if there is no way to avoid a conflict of interest. Can the university conduct research without scientists? Since when did we let administrators have so much control over our lives? Don’t get me wrong, I’m in the same boat. People right out of high school dictate policies that affect my work. What do we do about it? Just bitch and moan and blame others? I don’t know.
“Are you assuming that federal grants, and private and commodity funds all come without baggage or cronyism?”
Definitely not. But I’m certain some do. I’ve talked to and read articles from many researchers who feel they were bullied by political hacks installed into leadership positions as industry favors.
I’m not telling researchers to have no conflicts of interest. I’m suggesting they not get upset when people point it out.
People’s concerns about such things are real and they are based on plenty of real situations where science was corrupted for profit. And it’s definitely not confined to the field of science.
It’s not the public’s fault they are worried and they are not stupid because they don’t trust such things anymore.
Transparency to me means all studies and relevant data pertaining to research ultimately meant for public use (like things meant to be sold to the public) or even partly funded by public money should be fully released in a format easily obtainable by the public. No hidden studies, no pay walls, no exceptions.
Maybe that’s extreme but I am sick of being thought of as some stupid and passive market demographic to be manipulated and exploited for money.
I’m glad some of you are pushing for changes. They are needed.
I will take some time very soon to apply some pressure on my representatives regarding funding for research. Thank you for the suggestion.
Again, I am in the same boat and I know how hard it is to change things. I’ve never been one to advocate for unions, but maybe it’s time for more organization.
I’m sure the public will be behind you if you keep the message on point and the goals of the organization to one or two.
Regardless, thanks for your comments and for your work.
This is extremely on-point. NASA is totally dependent on collaboration with large public corporations, from LMCO to Space-X. And Boeing and the other manufacturers of the commercial aircraft that fly us home to see grandma so safely are also benefiting from corporate-government partnership. Same with that car whose advanced construction saved you when you were stupid enough to drive tipsy and wrecked.
I have great sympathy for the family farmers who grow over 80% of our crops. They benefit from the public-private collaboration between themselves, their suppliers, and government-funded agencies, and they are producing the safest, healthiest, and least expensive food supply in human history. They are experts in practical economics, and the vast majority are committed to farming with the least inputs and with deepest respect for the soil.
Yes these farmers and their suppliers are reviled by a hardcore group of fanatics whose fervor matches the religious intensity of Pentacostals, but who attack farmers and producers without the ethics and scruples of religious zealots. It’s disgusting.
This is so true, Prof. McGuire. Neither of the government agencies funding basic research, the NIH nor (particularly) the NSF would be interested in funding a study that doesn’t fundamentally move our understanding of biology forward. Glyphosate has proven over and over again to have such low acute and long-term toxicity that a grant application to study its occurrence in breast milk wouldn’t have made it to the first review.
The disease is privilege and entitlement, and the belief that the right to hold an opinion is independent of any of the work needed to back that opinion up with reality-based fact, research, and education.
That’s not a bad manifesto. As such,the rest of this screed isn’t aimed squarely at WeGotta, who appears to be in possession of a hint of a clue.
But if you want the people doing real science to meet you somewhere in the middle, I’d suggest you stop assuming that every scientist is on the take when their work happens to agree with the work of scientists employed by the corporations you have so much mistrust and disdain for.
Every scientist working for Monsanto or some other global seed supplier went to grad school next to someone who went into academia working for public institutions, or decided academia and the corporate world weren’t a good fit and started their own company. Or companies. As populations, there are no more awful people working for these corporations than there are working in journalism, or for anti-GMO pro-organic activist organizations.
Stop accusing everyone you disagree with of being an “industry shill” – seriously, those are fighting words and lead directly to the aggressive/defensive posture you decry among the scientists you accuse of “tough talk”.
If you don’t want to be treated like an idiot by people who have studied something their whole lives that you don’t really understand, then just. shut. the. f**k. up. Yeah, you may be living in a different reality, but you need to recognize, accept, and respect that the scientists you “don’t trust” live in a reality where your FEELZ don’t matter. Not at all. Nor will they ever, Nor should they. I’m a trained biochemist, and I will OWN you in that exchange. I can spot bulls**t in my field from a mile off. I’m also humble enough to recognize that I have insufficient knowledge to “disagree” with a particle physicist, or a cosmologist, or an engineer, or an expert in ethics, or a legal expert, or a tax accountant.
At some point, you are going to have to accept that the “education” you received on biotechnology, farm ecology, food system economics, and corporate governance was imparted to you by people who were NOT QUALIFIED to supply you with factual, useful, pertinent information. If you are willing to put in the work to learn real facts, do it.
If you are going to continue to come at scientists with marketing talking points from the EWG or OCA, or “facts” you picked up from Shiva, Natural News, Mercola, Bronner, Food Babe, Rachels News, etc. – expect to get pushback. A lot of it.
As an interested layperson I’ve made well over 1,000 comments on Disqus supporting GM and I try to spread the message as much as I can in social settings and elsewhere (subtly of course!). But I do think that research like this is very much an own-goal. Like it or not, Monsanto is the most hated company in the world, so it is naive to think you can sell science to Joe and Jane Public if there is even the slightest hint of Monsanto involvement. I don’t think Monsanto deserves the opprobrium it attracts but it has been that way for decades and it will almost certainly never change.
I also have a slight problem with the way COI has been discussed in the last few blog entries on this forum. Nowhere has it been mentioned (unless I overlooked something) that there is peer reviewed literature that strongly supports the claim that whoever provides the funding or does the research too often influences the results. This is also common sense and readily observable. It is no surprise that Marion Nestle, who I respect (but disagree with on the GM/Organic issue) has had a fine time gathering evidence of dodgy studies funded by the likes of Coca-cola that make sugary drinks look good.
I’m not sure what the solution is since there is no way government will ever provide all research funding. All I can think of is some type of “double blind” funding arrangement whereby industry puts money into a general research funding pool and some totally independent body decides how that money is allocated. But I am not a scientist and this may well be a dud of an idea. Anyway, the current state of affairs makes it very easy for the organic, green and alternative health groups to portray mainstream science as hopelessly tainted. I personally think the true extent of any bias in biotech science is more like an ant than an elephant but I’m clearly in the minority.
What should be done?
Thanks for this comment. I’m very aware of the research to which you’re referring. However, I believe that the best interpretation of those results (generally that research funded by a company with a clear COI tends to support the company’s needs) are not that the funding source is somehow “impacting” the results, but rather these companies don’t tend to fund research until they are pretty sure that the results will be positive. That’s a big difference in the interpretation you see by people who are basically looking for evidence of wrong-doing. In my experience, the researchers with whom I’ve worked wouldn’t dream of letting a funding agency/company somehow sway their results or interpretations. That’s just not the type of people we are. Of course, there’s always a bad apple here and there, but they’re few and far between in large research universities.
Like the opinion that
-money is speech
-we can win a war on an “-ism” by bombing people
-we can win a war on drugs by jailing people
-government spying on Americans keeps us safe
-America is a force of peace in the world
-money doesn’t influence science
-buying stuff brings lasting happiness
I really do wish we would apply our scientific prowess to such things. Maybe if scientists picked sides on the larger issues facing most Americans based on facts and research, they will win their trust.
“industry puts money into a general research funding pool and some totally independent body decides how that money is allocated”
I think that’s a great idea. I’d even support letting industry divert money from corporate taxes into such a fund. It’s a better investment in all our future than whatever the federal government is going to do with that money.
I think science needs a complete reboot.
There are some who believe the answer to the decline in math and science skills in the US is to focus on teaching all kids more math and science.
I disagree. I think it’s better to get kids engaged in some thing, anything. Whether it’s music, art, cooking, farming, engineering, childcare; it’s all science. Teach the science as questions come up, not as a dry and boring class trying to fit in the volumes and volumes of knowledge into a few hours of sitting still listening to someone lecture.
Honestly, how many research scientists and math stars do we need?
There will always be some who gravitate towards these kinds of fields and we should focus on supporting those people. If math and science are important their education should be free. I’d even support a stipend for scientists who engaged in research deemed “crucial” by society. Another solid investment.
One reaper drone costs more than 25 million dollars and each hellfire missile costs about $70,000. How many scientists could that support instead.
John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, says the same thing.
A good read if you want to understand just how scary corporate influence and government collusion has become. He just finished a follow up book also.
I heard an interview where he basically says the same thing you say. He knows many CEO’s of large businesses and they are just like the rest of us. They want a clean environment and they want what’s good for their kids just like the rest of us.
But they have pressures on them, also like the rest of us. If they don’t perform, they will be out. But they are in a much stronger position when they have consumers pushing for those changes.
So yes, if you want a corporation to change, it may be that you will be more successful working with them then pointing out all their faults. Same for people.
“I’m a trained biochemist [*]. I can spot bulls**t in my field from a mile off. I’m also humble enough to recognize that I have insufficient knowledge to “disagree” with a particle physicist, or a cosmologist, or an engineer, or an expert in ethics, or a legal expert, or a tax accountant.”
This statement makes you more qualified to run our country than many of the clowns that presumed they could (in my mind). Mostly the ability to spot bulls**t and the humility to know your limits. A good leader doesn’t need to know everything.
We are awash in bulls**t, and it flows from all places. Scientists are not immune. I’m sure you know very smart biochemists who you wouldn’t let watch your children.
Maybe this part of your comments weren’t directly aimed at me, but I don’t think I’ve ever accused someone of being a shill. At least not in a long time. I saw quickly how useless and self-defeating such things are. Everyone needs money in this system we have created for ourselves.
Nor do I listen to those names you listed at the end. I don’t even know who most of those people. The other names I have only seen in comments and articles which attack them.
As far as what I want, it’s this. For humans to find their place in the web of life and for us to recognize fully who we are. Science can help, but so could religion. Corporations can help. Government can help.
So the real question is are they? If they are not, I do expect those who purport to represent such things to figure out why. I expect them to turn their criticism inward toward their own belief structures. I expect them to take responsibility for those who do harm in the name of that belief system.
Scientists, religions, environmentalists, government; work on your own messes. Get yourself together and clean house. Then come to me with whatever truth you have to offer.
How could I reject Jesus if all those who believe in Jesus behave like Jesus and bring light and love into the world?
How could I reject science if scientists solved society’s greatest problems?
How could I reject a government that works for it’s citizens?
Even more appropriate to ask this of scientists.
Do you follow the scientific advice from experts regarding your health? Do you eat right, exercise, have good posture, meditate, go to the doctor every year, get your screening exams, spend time with your family, get a good night sleep every night, avoid dangerous habits and activities?
If not, then why should you expect anyone else to follow the advice of experts?
I don’t doubt your integrity for one minute Shelley but proclamations that you and your colleagues are untainted is not going to win over a skeptical public. There is also the issue of unconscious bias that we cannot do much about.
Folk like Dr. John Ioannidis, who “study the studies” and “research the researchers”, are finding much bigger problems with regards COI than the one you describe. As far as I can tell Ioannidis is a smart guy who is making real points that can’t be lightly dismissed. If I’m wrong about Ioannidis I’m happy to be corrected.
I think it is less tempting and more difficult and to get away with overtly biased research if you are part of the mainstream of a hotly contested and closely watched area of science like biotech because you know the vultures are circling. I think you’ve demonstrated this by the great care you’ve taken with this research.
Anyway, my main point is that it will remain easy for the opponents of biotech to wage a damaging propaganda war until we have something like the double blind funding I mentioned in my previous comment.
Solving big problems take buy in from the public. Seems to me you’re proposing a chicken and egg situation.
I’ve seen those studies that show what seems to be a bias to industry friendly results when there’s industry funding. But I think it’s only part of the story. Industry is motivated to find studies for which they already sort of know the answer. And studies that have boring results don’t get published. So we’ve got two major factors that could skew publications but that don’t indicate misconduct at all.
I don’t get what you mean.
Identify a problem by asking the public. Then go to work.
I’m aware of that Anastasia but that is only part of the story. It doesn’t explain why academic scientists line up to join front groups funded by Big Sugar like the Global Energy Balance Network and it does not explain this:
Saying the above is merely industry “fund[ing] studies for which they already sort of know the answer” just doesn’t cut it.
I think the mainstream science on biotech is as rock solid as that on AGW and part of the reason is the extra scrutiny those areas get. But science as a whole has some problems that need fixing and the festering sore that is COI is high on the list. And the anti-science nuts will kick that sore every chance they get.
I seem to remember that line of reasoning being addressed in an old essay here on Biofortified.
>>> Another thing to keep in mind, especially where compositional studies
are concerned is that the company has already performed in-house
studies. They are contracting independent scientists to confirm their
findings. This is going to skew the results of the sample towards
industry favorable study outcomes. This doesn’t mean the studies were
suspect. They were just more likely to result in a favorable outcome to
begin with. If the in-house study had an unfavorable outcome in
compositional assessment or other tests, then that project would be
stopped and it’s back to the drawing board for a new project. There is
no need for follow up testing by outside independent researchers. That’s
a big reason why so many studies in that sample will produce favorable
The Nicolia review (think 1,700 studies) of GMO crops was funded by the organic industry, and came out positive. Also, Pioneer funded and published the study that found that a brazil nut gene in soybeans was allergenic. So one must be careful when referring to ‘all’ studies funded by certain sources.
As long as funding comes from any source, there is always potential conflict of interest (COI). The real issue is whether or not that potential COI should be a matter of concern. Think of it like the risk equation – Risk = Exposure x Hazard, where exposure is access to funds and hazard is propensity to being influenced by those funds. Simply being exposed to potential COI doesn’t guarantee that it will happen. For the vast majority of scientists I know, the risk is minimal or non-existent. But for the public, there tends to be a sense that potential COI implies concrete COI, and that really isn’t fair to most scientists. So what frustrates us is that if we openly and honestly claim a potential COI, we are decried as being in the pocket of industry, even if we aren’t. Industry should be expected to pay for their own developmental and evaluating research since they will directly benefit from any products, but if they do the work themselves, the work will be considered tainted. So they provide funds for independent labs and university researchers to do the work. If that work also is considered tainted, then we are tying the hands of industry to develop new tools and products that can improve lives and the environment.
Transparency of all data is rather problematic. Intellectual property is very important for the solvency of commercial interests, but also increasingly for academic institutions (think Gatorade and the University of Florida). Obtaining and protecting patents is very important in this process, and data access must be more limited during that process to protect the investment of those paying for the work. If that were not the case, no one would even attempt patenting ideas and progress would slow considerably (why spend money if other parasites will make money off of my ideas with no investment or effort?). Some information can be released during the development and evaluation stages, but it must be limited to protect the investing parties.
Publications behind pay walls is a challenge. Many to most (not all) of these are accessible to researchers at major universities (at significant cost of multi-million dollars to the institutions), but the growing costs of these institutional digital subscriptions are encouraging more and more researchers to go to open-access journals to increase access. Many of us also feel that publicly funded research should ultimately be available to the public provided intellectual property policies are not violated, but this also has been exploited by the growing number of predatory “pay-to-play” journals (see https://scholarlyoa.com/2015/01/02/bealls-list-of-predatory-publishers-2015/), where there is minimal or no peer review, and the author simply forks out money and it is published. There is little or no vetting of whether or not the work is even worthy considering in the marketplace if ideas. It’s just out there adding to the noise.
Incidentally, there is a fair amount of confusion among the public about the function of peer review. Many people seem to think that peer review means that the paper has been evaluated and deemed correct and true. However, the function of peer review is to carefully vet potential publications to make sure that what they report was developed and analyzed correctly, that the work is sufficiently described as to be repeatable, and the conclusions drawn by the author are firmly rooted in the data in that manuscript and supporting citations provided by the author. A peer reviewer does not validate the veracity of a manuscript, but should determine whether there is sufficient justification for the paper to be added to the body of scientific literature for future discussion and use.
But back to data availability – even beyond the business concerns there are folks within the scientific community who will parasitize the work of others. As a young and naive graduate student I presented some of my as-yet-unpublished work at a meeting, and had it snatched and published by a faculty member at another institution. Hard lesson. I also have had several of my published papers “re-published” in journals in other countries, but with someone else as author. Otherwise the text, tables, and figures were identical. Plagiarism is the ultimate form of flattery, right? The pressure to publish and develop a track record for extramural funding and awards can get to some folks and lead them to do very unethical things. So we have to be careful with our data before it is ready to be published,and must monitor for abuses even afterward.
Any support for research funding from the public is much appreciated, so thanks for jumping into the fray as a supporter. I’ve rambled too long, and probably without much clarity. Sorry about that. You touched on a few nerves. 🙂
Thanks for that perspective. Especially about the purpose of peer review.
No need for apologies. I completely understand and sympathize. That really sucks that people stole your work.
There are a lot of problems with my job as well. My choices are to accept it, change it or to leave it.
I can’t seem to accept it, so I plan to leave it.
But, if I can get myself to the point where I don’t need the job, I feel I may be in a great position to change some things. Maybe that’s my purpose?
Regarding how to interact with skeptical people, I think this type of honest and open information from scientists is best. This as opposed to the way some people can come across as “just trust us because we are smarter than you”.
That was very informative Pogo. Thanks a lot! I would happily pay more tax to better fund science. Best wishes.
The due diligence science could be greatly improved with multiple labs working with split samples. The wider the base of independence of the technicians, the better. Does that not make sense? The information in the study is good, but it could have far more power if multiple labs were used, as a feature toward strengthening the results and conclusions, and reducing potential conflicts of interest.IMHO
All scientists have to get their funding from somewhere, and that does pressure toward biasing the results, everyone has to deal with this to varying degrees. The funder is usually hoping to have supporting results. If the scientists don’t fairly often come up with supportive results… the funding is likely to dwindle. This happens to be a pressure on all practitioners.
Agreed. Really, all we can do is continue to do good work and hold our colleagues to the same. Also, seasoned scientists need to become more comfortable talking about these issues in public. We tend to be card-carrying introverts, so this sort of thing just doesn’t come naturally.
This is complicated, but again I’m going to stand up for scientists here. Let’s say that I have a hypothesis that (after controlling for total energy intake) consumption of sweetened-beverages is not linked to obesity. Let’s say I really, really believe that hypothesis and want to test it with a gold-standard human intervention study design that is going to cost upward of $1M (not an unreasonable number). I would have a couple of choices as to where I might get funding. I could try the NIH with their <5% funding rate and high likelihood of having to resubmit twice before even having a chance of funding (this would be a 1+ year process just to write/submit grants and wait to hear), or I could contact someone who oversees research at Coca-Cola (or other industry group) who would also want this research done. In fact, if this were me I'd probably try both of these routes simultaneously. Given the realities at hand, the folks at Coca-Cola would probably let me know if they could support the project in a fraction of the time needed for NIH. So the project would probably be funded by industry with a clear CO rather than a public funding sourceI. But we would manage that COI by appropriate study design (e.g., power calculations to make sure we had enough subjects, blinding, randomization, placebo controls, validated analytics, statistics, etc.). My university would also require contracts stating that Coca-Cola cannot influence where the results are published and what we say. And although there might be Coca-Cola coauthors on the paper (if they indeed were integral to the study….something that is very possible given the caliber of scientists sometimes employed by industry), their opinions would be considered along side those of the rest of the coauthors, with the corresponding author (me) having final say. Regardless of the results and whether they support my a priori hypothesis. I can guarantee you I would publish that paper! And I would disclose the funding source. And I would lay out all the ways we managed the COI in the materials and methods. But of course, if my findings support the a priorit hypothesis, people like Emily Willingham would write an article with a headline like "Coca-Cola-funded study finds no impact of Coca-Cola consumption on children's health" and insinuate that I am somehow in bed ("having a big 'ole slumber party") with Coca-Cola.
Anyway, now I'm sort of rambling and I'm sorry about that. I'm just trying to explain why and how such a high percentage of these sorts of studies support the wants of the industry groups that fund them. COI are expected; they just need to be well managed. We need to do a better job of explaining this to the public, and it would really really help if people like Emily Willingham had a better handle on how this all works. She is naive and dangerous in this respect because she seems to be able to publish her very unbalanced thoughts in high-end outlets like Forbes. It's discouraging.
You aren’t rambling at all, Shelley. Thanks for giving me extra insight into how science works.
Maybe if the scientific community abided by the rules inherent in the periodic chart as the ship’s keel we would be better off.
Late comment, I know, but one thing to point out about headlines: the writers rarely write/have any say in what the headlines to their stories are…and editors may tend to choose more sensationalist headlines.
That doesn’t invalidate anything you say, but something to keep in mind when evaluating the press.
Comments are closed.