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.