BY ANNALEE NEWITZ
You’ve probably heard about how the tobacco industry tried to suppress scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer by publishing shady research, bribing politicians, and pressuring researchers. But you may not have realized that tabacco’s dirty tricks are just the tip of the iceberg. In a disturbing new report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists about corporate corruption of the sciences, you’ll learn about how Monsanto hired a public relations team to invent fake people who harassed a scientific journal online, how Coca Cola offers bribes to suppress evidence that soft drinks harm kids’ teeth, and more. Here are some of the most egregious recent examples of corruption from this must-read report.
The report is a meaty assessment of corporate corruption in science that stretches back to incidents with Big Tobacco in the 1960s, up through contemporary examples. Here are just a few of those.
One way that corporations prevent negative information about their products from getting out is by harassing scientists and the journals that publish them. Here’s how Monsanto did it:
Dr. Ingacio Chapela of the University of California–Berkeley and graduate student David Quist published an article in Nature showing that DNA from genetically modified corn was contaminating native Mexican corn. The research spurred immediate backlash.Nature received a number of letters to the editor, including several comments on the Internet from “Mary Murphy” and “Andura Smetacek” accusing the scientists of bias. The backlash prompted Nature to publish an editorial agreeing that the report should not have been published. However, investigators eventually discovered that the comments from Murphy and Smetacek originated with The Bivings Group, a public relations firm that specializes in online communications and had worked for Monstanto. Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek were found to be fictional names.
Corporations also form front organizations to hide their efforts to undermine science. That’s what happened when producers of unhealthy food got together to cast doubt on the FDA’s recommended health guidelines:
The Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit that targets dietary guidelines recommended by the FDA, other government agencies, medical associations, and consumer advocacy organizations. The center has run ads and owns a website that accuses government agencies of overregulation, and has published articles claiming to refute evidence that high salt intake and other dietary guidelines are based on inadequate science. The center was founded with a $600,000 grant from Philip Morris, but has also received funding from Cargill, National Steak and Poultry, Monsanto, Coca-Cola, and Sutter Home Winery.
Sometimes corporations just go for it and buy off legit organizations, as Coca Cola did when they appear to have paid dentists to stop saying kids shouldn’t drink Coke:
In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry accepted a $1 million donation from Coca-Cola. That year, the group claimed that “scientific evidence is certainly not clear on the exact role that soft drinks play in terms of children’s oral disease.” The statement directly contradicted the group’s previous stance that “consumption of sugars in any beverage can be a significant factor…that contributes to the initiation and progression of dental caries.”
Corporations can also unduly influence federal agencies, as ReGen did when they wanted their device approved for trials by the FDA, despite serious medical problems:
ReGen Biologics attempted to gain FDA approval for clinical trials of Menaflex, a device it developed to replace knee cartilage. After an FDA panel rejected the device, the company enlisted four members of Congress from its home state of New Jersey to influence the evaluation process. In December 2007, Senator Frank Lautenberg, Senator Robert Menendez, and Representative Steve Rothman wrote to FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach asking him to personally look into Menaflex. Soon thereafter, the commissioner met with ReGen executives and heeded the company’s advice to have Dr. Daniel Shultz, head of the FDA’s medical devices division, oversee a new review. The FDA fast-tracked and approved the product despite serious concerns from the scientific community.
If bribery doesn’t work, you can always censor negative results, the way pharmaceutical company Boots did:
Boots commissioned Dr. Betty Dong, a scientist at the University of California–San Francisco, to test the effects of Synthroid, a replacement for thyroid hormone. Boots hoped to reveal that despite its high price, Synthroid was more effective than similar drugs. The company closely monitored the research, and when Dong found that the drug was no more effective than its competitors, instructed her not to publish the results. When she refused to comply, Boots threatened to sue. The company relented only after several years, during which consumers continued to pay for the costly product.
You can also try “refuting” scientific results with bad evidence, the way the formaldehyde industry did:
To counter a study that found that formaldehyde caused cancer in rats, a formaldehyde company commissioned its own study. That study-which found no association between the chemical and cancer-exposed only one-third the number of rats to formaldehyde for half as long as the original study. A formaldehyde association quickly publicized the results and argued before the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) that they indicated “no chronic health effects from exposure to the level of formaldehyde normally encountered in the home”
And then, if you’re Pfizer, you can just generate as much favorable research as you like to bolster sales of a drug, despite your discovery that the drug increases risk of suicide:
From 1998 to 2007, Pfizer discreetly facilitated the publication of 15 case studies, six case reports, and nine letters to the editor to boost off-label use of Neurontin, a drug prescribed to treat seizures in people who have epilepsy and nerve pain. The number of patients taking the drug rose from 430,000 to 6 million, making it one of Pfizer’s most profitable products. An investigation found that Pfizer had failed to publish negative results, selectively reported outcomes, and excluded specific patients from analysis. [Most importantly] Pfizer failed to note that the drug increased the risk of suicide.
Read the full report here, which includes sources for these stories, as well as an extensive section devoted to reforming scientific practices. There are ways we can avoid this kind of corruption, and they involve everything from federal reforms to corporate transparency.