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June 6, 2005

Rent-Seeking Behavior Is Undermining Research

Corporations use considerable resources in an attempt to refute or render uncertain the outcome of research likely to lead to unfavorable policy or regulatory outcomes. This rent-seeking behavior, which this article claims has been made much more cost effective by this administration’s policies, is undermining scientific research and harming the public interest. This is from a much longer article in Scientific American containing descriptions of particular cases such as Vioxx, beryllium, PPA, and others. It’s sad to see the smear tactics that have proven so successful in the political arena finding their way into basic research and working there as well:
Doubt is Their Product , David Michaels, Scientific American, June 2005: … Uncertainty is an inherent problem of science, but manufactured uncertainty is another matter entirely. Over the past three decades, industry groups have frequently become involved in the investigative process when their interests are threatened. If, for example, studies show that a company is exposing its workers to dangerous levels of a certain chemical, the business typically responds by hiring its own researchers to cast doubt on the studies. Or if a pharmaceutical firm faces questions about the safety of one of its drugs, its executives trumpet company sponsored trials that show no significant health risks while ignoring or hiding other studies that are much less reassuring. The vilification of threatening research as "junk science" and the corresponding sanctification of industry-commissioned research as "sound science" has become nothing less than standard operating procedure in some parts of corporate America.… What is more, Congress and the administration of President George W. Bush have encouraged such tactics by making it easier for private groups to challenge government-funded research. Although in some cases, companies may be raising legitimate arguments, the overall result is disturbing: many corporations have successfully avoided expense and inconvenience by blocking and stalling much needed protections for public health. ... Emphasizing uncertainty on behalf of big business has become a big business in itself. The product-defense firms have become experienced and successful consultants in epidemiology, biostatistics and toxicology. In fact, it is now unusual for the science behind any proposed public health or environmental regulation not to be challenged, no matter how powerful the evidence. …[e.g.] the Weinberg Group, a product-defense consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., … put … researchers through grueling legal depositions. David A. Kessler, former head of the FDA and now dean of the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine, said, "With the amount of hassle and harassment that [the Yale scientists] had to endure, I'm sure the next time they're asked to undertake something like this, they'll wonder if it's worth the cost." … As a result, civil lawsuits have become the primary means for protecting the public ... Recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, however, have made it harder for plaintiffs to introduce scientific testimony to support their cases. … Corporate defendants have become increasingly emboldened to challenge any expert testimony on the grounds that it is based on "junk science." Industry groups have tried to manipulate science no matter which political party controls the government, but the efforts have grown more brazen since George W. Bush became president. … never in our history have corporate interests been as successful as they are today in shaping science policies to their desires. … What is more, this administration has tried to facilitate and institutionalize the corporate strategy of manufacturing uncertainty. Its most significant tool is the Data Quality Act (DQA), a midnight rider attached to a 2001 appropriations bill and approved by Congress without hearings or debate. … [allows] industry groups use the DQA to slow or stop attempts at regulation by undercutting scientific reports. The law gives corporations an established procedure for killing or altering government documents with which they do not agree. … Even better for industry would be a way to control information before it becomes part of an official government document. To accomplish this tantalizing goal, in August 2003 the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rolled out a new proposal entitled "Peer Review and Information Quality." … Because the proposed peer-review process would exclude all scientists receiving grants or contracts from the agency, it seemed designed to maximize the ability of corporate interests to manufacture and magnify scientific uncertainty. Enough was enough. In November 2003 the usually quiescent science community finally rose up in protest at a meeting sponsored, at the OMB's request, by the National Academy of Sciences. In the face of this opposition--dozens of organizations fired off scathing letters to the White House--the OMB retreated and implemented a less onerous program that did not exclude the most qualified scientists from the peer-review process. A new regulatory paradigm is clearly needed, but the Bush administration is heading in the wrong direction. Instead of encouraging industry groups to revise the reports of government scientists, agencies should be focusing more scrutiny on the data and analyses provided by corporate scientists and product-defense firms. And instead of allowing uncertainty to be an excuse for inaction, regulators should return to first principles: use the best science available ... DAVID MICHAELS is an epidemiologist who served as the U.S. Department of Energy's assistant secretary for environment, safety and health from 1998 to 2001. He is currently professor and associate chairman in the department of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.
[Note: See also Ethics of Scientists May Be Shaky, Poll Says by Mahalanobis.]

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