Ethics And Publication

Recently, Drugmonkey noted the following:

If the lab head tells the trainees or techs that a specific experimental outcome* must be generated by them, this is scientific misconduct.

Which brings us to this NYT article (boldface mine):

The bee findings were not what Syngenta expected to hear.

The pesticide giant had commissioned James Cresswell, an expert in flowers and bees at the University of Exeter in England, to study why many of the world’s bee colonies were dying. Companies like Syngenta have long blamed a tiny bug called a varroa mite, rather than their own pesticides, for the bee decline.

Dr. Cresswell has also been skeptical of concerns raised about those pesticides, and even the extent of bee deaths. But his initial research in 2012 undercut concerns about varroa mites as well. So the company, based in Switzerland, began pressing him to consider new data and a different approach

A review of Syngenta’s strategy shows that Dr. Cresswell’s experience fits in with practices used by American competitors like Monsanto and across the agrochemical industry. Scientists deliver outcomes favorable to companies, while university research departments court corporate support. Universities and regulators sacrifice full autonomy by signing confidentiality agreements. And academics sometimes double as paid consultants…

But about a half-decade ago, he became interested in the debate over neonicotinoids, a nicotine-derived class of pesticide, and their effects on bee health. Many studies linked the chemicals to a mysterious collapse of bee colonies that was in the news. Other studies, many backed by industry, pointed to the varroa mite, and some saw both factors at play.

Dr. Cresswell’s initial research led him to believe that concerns about the pesticides were overblown. In 2012, Syngenta offered to fund further research.

turning away research funding is difficult. The British government ranks universities on how useful their work is to industry and society, tying government grants to their assessments.

I was pressured enormously by my university to take that money,” he said. “It’s like being a traveling salesman and having the best possible sales market and telling your boss, ‘I’m not going to sell there.’ You can’t really do that.”

…Dr. Cresswell and Syngenta agreed on a list of eight potential causes of bee deaths to be studied. They discussed how to structure grant payments. They reviewed research assistant candidates. Dr. Cresswell sought permission from Syngenta to pursue new insights he gained, asking at one point, “Please can you confirm that you are happy with the direction our current work is taking?”

But he also pushed back at times. An email from Syngenta to the university said that Dr. Cresswell “will have final editorial control,” but Dr. Cresswell, in another email, expressed concern that a proposed confidentiality clause “grants Syngenta the right to suppress the results,” adding, “I am not happy to work under a gagging clause.” He says the term of the clause was reduced to only a few months….

But Dr. Cresswell’s initial research for Syngenta did not support the varroosis claims. “We are finding it pretty unlikely that varoosis is responsible for honey bee declines,” he wrote to Syngenta in 2012.

An executive wrote back, suggesting that Dr. Cresswell look more narrowly at “loss data” of beehives rather than at broader bee stock trends, “As this may give a different answer!”

For the next several weeks, the company repeatedly asked Dr. Cresswell to refocus his examination to look at varroa. In another email, the executive told Dr. Cresswell, “it would also be good to also look at varroa as a potential uptick factor” in specific countries where it could have exacerbated bee losses.

In the same email, part of a chain with the subject line “Varoosis report,” he also asked Dr. Cresswell to look at changes in Europe, rather than worldwide. Dr. Cresswell agreed and said, “I have some other angles to look at the varoosis issue further.”

By changing parameters, varroa mites did become a significant factor. “We’re coming to the view that varoosis is potent regarding colony loss at widespread scale,” Dr. Cresswell wrote in January 2013. A later email included scoring that bore that out.

Mr. Gibbs of Syngenta said, “We discussed and defined the direction of the research in partnership with the researcher with the aim of ensuring that it was focused and relevant.” He added, “We did not undermine Dr. Cresswell’s independence, dictate his approach to assessing the eight factors agreed upon with him, or restrict any of the conclusions he subsequently drew.”

That said, Syngenta was a client and Dr. Cresswell was providing a service. Looking back, Dr. Cresswell said that while he still thought concerns about the pesticides were overblown, aspects of his project were inevitably influenced by the nature of the relationship.

And here’s the punchline:

While he presented his research publicly, it was never published

Today, Dr. Cresswell has returned to less controversial areas of bee research. He said he respects scientists he met from Syngenta, but views collaboration with industry as a Faustian bargain.

He called Syngenta “a kind of devil.”

“What I didn’t realize is that supping with them would actually have a broader impact on how the world sees me as a scientist,” he said. “That was my misjudgment.”

A cautionary tale. As obnoxious as obtaining government funding can be, it does prevent this from happening.

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