- Hygeia Analytics Funding
- Thoughts on Funding and Scientific Integrity
- Chronology of Dr. Benbrook’s Work and Funding
- The New York Times Weighs In
- The Impact of Funding on Dr. Benbrook’s Work
- Special Interest Science Must – and Can — Earn the Benefit of Doubt
- About Hygeia Analytics
- Site Map and Keywords
- Hygeia Analytics- Who We Are
- Why Hygeia?
- Acronyms and Glossary
Hygeia Analytics Funding
Hygeia Analytics was created and is funded by Benbrook Consulting Services (BCS) and its proprietor, Dr. Charles Benbrook. Over time, BCS projects, foundation, and/or government grants will be used to support new content on HA. Such sources of support will be disclosed here.
If you would like to support the growth of Hygeia Analytics, we will accept donations large and small. Click the button below to be taken to a secure donation portal. Core support for general website improvement is appreciated, as is funding linked to enhancing certain features of the website that seem especially valuable.
We will also accept support tied to expanded coverage of certain topics that fall within the overall focus and expertise of the Hygeia Analytics team. However, such support will only guarantee more and deeper coverage of an issue, not what we have to say about it.
For more discussion of the impact of funding on scientists and the scientific enterprise, please read and reflect on the following section.
Some Thoughts on Funding and Scientific Integrity
The term “sound science” often arises in debates at the interface of farming systems and technology, food safety and nutritional quality, and the environmental footprint of agricultural production. In the USDA, Departmental regulation 1074-011 was issued on May 10, 2013, and calls upon all USDA employees to “…develop policies informed by sound science…” This USDA scientific integrity regulation goes on to state that the USDA will:
“Promote a culture of scientific integrity. Science, and public trust in science, thrives in an environment that shields scientific data and analyses and their use in policy making from political interference or inappropriate influence.”
At all levels of government, the role of science in the regulatory and policy processes has come to be dominated by stakeholders, most of whom have clear goals and concerns, and the ability to tap “science” in support of them. Too often, the constituencies with the capacity to most fully flood the process with their views, and what they regard as “sound science,” tend to be rewarded with more favorable outcomes. The disinterested voice of science is, at best, muffled and is far too regularly simply absent.
It’s just not anyone’s job anymore to engage the policy process on behalf of the scientific community and in order to advance public good.
The questions posed to government agencies and policy makers wrestling with technical issues are often very complex and indeed, cannot be fully answered based on current scientific knowledge and tools. Well-intentioned legislative and policy mandates often run ahead of science and technical knowledge, as well as the tools needed to achieve them.
Nonetheless, life goes on, problems often persist and then metastasize, and new systems and technology are constantly altering the interface of farming, food, and health. Actions are taken, and decisions must be made despite lacking all the answers, and even sometimes before the important questions have made it onto the policy radar screen.
In such cases, something has to give. Usually, it is time. Delay is the universal elixir for unrealistic and/or controversial legislative and regulatory actions and initiatives. It can also provide space for political tensions to dissipate, or become redirected by the fight-of-the-day. Major changes in the political environment and executive branch leadership also can trigger what might seem like a global reset in the policy process.
Federal agencies default to a number of common strategies when scientific disagreements and controversies threaten to derail the policy process. They might:
- Seek public comment and guidance from stakeholders,
- Set up an advisory body,
- Directly fund new research, or mandate some company or an industry to develop and submit new data,
- Assess how other countries have dealt with similar issues,
- Punt to the states,
- Set provisional or limited standards that will be reviewed every three to five years, and/or
- Ask the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study.
Agencies usually pursue several of the above strategies simultaneously, especially when dealing with contentious issues with significant economic impacts, or direct linkages to touchy social or cultural issues (e.g., transparency, vaccination, abortion, creationism).
This usually creates a flurry of analytical and scientific effort, driven by the efforts of various stakeholders to capture and hold the “sound science” high ground.
In most cases, the challenges that agencies are directed to deal with are nuanced, complex, and dynamic, with potential to markedly tilt the competitive playing field. Often the very nature of the problem changes faster than the ability of science to fully understand what is happening, why, and with what consequences. A number of good examples arise in the world of pest management (resistant weeds and insects) and human disease prevention and treatment (antibiotic resistance, adverse drug interactions).
Uncertainty over how best to achieve stated policy goals is rampant, unavoidable, and a major hurdle in reaching consensus regarding how to move forward. Lacking consensus … well, you know the drill. Delay, and usually a call for more research.
My good friend Fred Kirschenmann has thought deeply for half a century on the nature of science. In 2002, the University of Kentucky Press published a set of Fred’s essays in a volume entitled Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher (purchase a copy here).
One chapter is particularly provocative – “What Constitutes Sound Science?” With the permission of the University of Kentucky Press, Hygeia Analytics is glad to share Fred’s sound science essay in its entirety.
Fred sees science as a process managed to discover the nature of the world and why things happen. It is not a collection of indisputable facts. Fred wrote to me recently:
“What we tend to regard as ‘objective’ is actually a consensus of a group of scientists…who all explore the same phenomenon and eventually reach a consensus, and that becomes the ‘truth’— that is, until some other scientist comes along who asks a question not previously thought of, or discovers a phenomenon not previously known, and then the ‘society of explorers’ [i.e., scientists active in the field] goes through a new process of arriving at a new consensus.”
And of course, nature evolves, often driven by the hands of man, and facts change. A drug or pesticide that once worked well can become less effective. A chemical added to food that was once thought benign might be identified as an endocrine disruptor that can trigger developmental havoc at very low doses during the first trimester of a woman’s pregnancy. Any farming practice deployed too often or under the wrong circumstances can trigger collateral damage. Farming and food systems that once sustained soil, animal, and human health can evolve in ways that erode health or biodiversity.
Farming and food choices always entail tradeoffs, some generally recognized and others obscure, or even virtually unknown. Society desperately needs “sound science” to navigate these dynamic, often mysterious, but consequential waters, yet a case can be made that sound science in the world of food and agriculture belongs on the endangered species list.
My Funding and My Work
Since the late 1980s, the erosion of scientific integrity in the world of food and agricultural science has been steady, and it now reaches deep into DNA of agricultural, food safety, and nutrition research.
I am not the only person worried by the erosion of integrity in agricultural, food, and nutrition sciences. For example, see Jerry Hagstrom’s compelling piece in the February 25, 2015 National Journal entitled “Agriculture Has a Science Problem.” In it he writes –
“Everyone in agriculture—from farmers, to agribusiness executives, to the professors who conduct agricultural research—says that decisions ranging from what to eat to settling international trade conflicts should be based on science.
“But developments in the past few weeks have raised questions about how much people should trust agricultural science and scientists.”
When I served as Staff Director of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Department Operations, Research, and Foreign Agriculture (DORFA) in 1981-1983, my job was to track down and invite scientists to testify on the ag science and technology issues of the day. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) also fell within the jurisdiction of the DORFA Subcommittee, a freak coincidence that changed the course of my career.
Back when I served on the staff of the U.S. Congress, the institution worked well. It was easy back then to find thoughtful, committed, public-service scientists working at land grant universities who were willing to come in and educate the Subcommittee (and its staff!) on the issues before the subcommittee.
Nearly all scientists who took on this task were respectful of the purpose of a subcommittee hearing – informing the members of Congress who shape and ultimately pass changes in law and policy, and set research funding priorities.
Partisanship existed, but so did boundaries containing it that allowed Republicans and Democrats to be friends, and get their job done. In our Subcommittee, when we marked up re-authorizing legislation, the member with the best idea and most carefully crafted language almost always won the vote.
Those days are long gone. Land grant scientists are no longer given the benefit of doubt that their work, views, and statements are firmly rooted in sound science and the public interest. Science is too often now twisted, anecdotal, and largely controlled by those most able to influence funding for it.
Trust in agricultural and nutrition science has been melting away for years. The overtly biased and self-serving nature of private sector dominated science is a major reason why.
Private sector science is science that is influenced or controlled by private interests who see investing in “science” not as a way to promote knowledge for the greater good, or solve pressing problems, but as another way to gain market share, build or sustain brand recognition, and/or defend a product or technology when questions are raised about its efficacy or collateral damage.
For over decade now, private sector science has dominated public sector science in virtually every way. In fact, a growing share of public sector scientists are so intimidated by the power of private sector science that they no longer will engage on matters of deep concern to private companies, because they know what the consequences will be for them.
The shift in control over the regulatory and public policy agenda from public sector science to private sector science has touched a nerve. Many people care deeply about the retreat of public sector science, and fear that as a society, we are near, or perhaps have already crossed a tipping point. This is why the funding of science, and scientists, has attracted so much attention lately, and will likely continue to do so.
The significant decline in real public funding for the land grant system over the last three decades forced university administrators to become entrepreneurial, in the hope of replacing declining public funding with private and philanthropic sources of support. Many institutions have been successful in this quest, and some have more total funding now than they did at the peak of federal-plus-state support.
But when a weed science, entomology or food science department receives 50% or more of its extramural research funding from corporations with a clear idea of what they want to get back in return for their investment, careers and research priorities and experimental designs begin to be shaped in ways not firmly grounded in “sound science,” nor the needs of farmers, people, and society. Public science incrementally becomes an appendage of private sector science, serving different needs and goals. As the tentacles of private sector science penetrate into all aspects of the conduct of science, and influence all or most of the stepping-stones in a scientist’s career, the public’s stake in food and agricultural research is lost by the wayside.
And thus the seeds of doubt are sown, and agricultural and food science enterprise began its long side down what has become a very slippery slope.
The who and how and why of agricultural science funding has become a major flashpoint, especially in high-impact public policy debates. Those who control investments in science have enormous influence over:
- What questions get asked and answered,
- What data gets collected and who has access to it,
- Which results get published and where, and which receive attention within and outside the scientific community,
- Who gets to pursue a career in science and which careers advance and prosper, and which falter, and
- What findings and insights are shared with the general public, the media, and decision-makers, and ultimately what research comes to define scientific “consensus.”
My work over nearly four decades has focused on pressure points at the interface of agricultural science and technology, the environment, food safety, public health, and public policy. So it is no wonder that the integrity of my scientific work has also been questioned in recent years, with special focus on the influence my sources of funding have had on my work.
Benbrook Funding Since 1979
In 1979 and 1980, I worked for the Council of Environmental Quality in the Executive Office of the President (EOP). I was an analyst and writer, and my funding came from taxpayers, via Congressional appropriations to the EOP. The source of my funding was never an issue in the interpretation, use, or perceived value of my work, even by Republicans active in the same areas of policy. What mattered was solid analysis and data-driven advocacy for policy initiatives addressing widely embraced public policy goals.
From 1981-1983, I worked for the House Ag Committee, serving as Staff Director of the DORFA Subcommittee. My funding came from the U.S. House of Representatives, via taxpayers. Both in my dealings with Republican and Democratic members, special interest groups, government agency representatives, and the media, the source of my funding was not an issue.
From 1984 through 1990, I was the Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture in the National Academy of Sciences. My funding came from the National Research Council/NAS, and was from the pooled resources of the NAS/NRC (government grants, foundations, private companies, and institutional endowments). The source of my funding was never an issue in my dealings with committee members, funders for our projects, government officials, and the media. In recent years though, the source of funding for many NAS/NRC projects on agriculture and food science issues has become a concern in some quarters.
I formed Benbrook Consulting Services (BCS) in late 1990, after leaving the NAS/NRC. My first two contracts were with Kraft Foods (helping them deal with pesticide residues in Folgers coffee) and the Humane Society of the U.S. (options to better use set-aside acres to support more diversified crop rotations that would build soil health). In the 1990s, many other clients followed with international organizations including the World Bank, UNDP, FAO, and Bread for the World.
In the 1990-2005 period, the source of my funding was not much of an issue, because it was always clear for whom I was working, and for what purpose. What did matter to the outside world was the quality of the analytical work and the synthesis of science as it relates to public policy issues and decisions before government agencies.
Another thing mattered to me — the constant struggle to have funding (i.e. income) to continue work that was meaningful to me, my clients, and the communities and country I try to serve.
My major client from about 1992 through 2001 was Consumers Union. With colleagues at CU, I wrote Pest Management at the Crossroads, a book
published by CU in 1993. I continued to work with CU, drawing on mostly foundation funding, on the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), a milestone that occurred in 1996. Throughout 1997-2002, I was heavily involved in analytical work on the implementation of the FQPA, with funding from Consumers Union, and in the later years, a range of NGO clients.
For the most part during this era of work on pesticides and pesticide regulatory policy, the source of my funding was not a major issue or concern, my funding and clients were always disclosed. I also suspect some people and many in the media gave my work the benefit of doubt, at least to some degree, because of the reputation of Consumers Union for unbiased, data-driven analysis.
For a couple of years in the early 1990s, the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) in the California State government was my major client. They hired me to do a thorough evaluation of their pesticide regulatory program, in the wake of the formation of Cal-E.P.A. The report written at the end of that two-year project was well received and influential, and helped guide constructive change in DPR’s programs during a time of institutional fluidity. The source of funding for my work (California tax-payers) was never an issue during that project, and as the report was debated and acted upon.
By the mid-1990s, I had begun working for a variety of NGOs, institutions, and companies on agricultural biotechnology. Regardless of how one feels about the costs, benefits, and risks of agricultural biotech, there should be no doubt about its impact on the conduct and integrity of agricultural science. The pace has clearly accelerated down the slippery slope eroding public trust in agricultural science since the dawn of the GE era.
In 1995-2005, Benbrook Consulting Services did many reports, reviews of biotechnology regulatory packages, articles, analyses, and statements on ag biotech issues (see this list of publications for examples).
I focused much attention on the claim from the biotechnology industry that the major GE crops were reducing overall pesticide use. I knew this was not true in the U.S. by the year 2000, and thought it important to set the record straight.
Six reports on the subject and more than 10 years later, the job is still not done, despite the overwhelming evidence that GE crops in the U.S. have markedly increased overall pesticides use, because of the huge increase in the volume of herbicides applied. (For details on this work, see the HA section Impacts of GE Crops on Pesticide Use).
The reason that the biotech industry, and its academic advocates and PR teams, have perpetuated the myth that today’s GE crops reduce pesticide use rests in part upon the industry’s uncanny ability to influence who is able to conduct and publish research on the topic. I am among very few people in the U.S. that have carried out and published research on this topic with funding not controlled or heavily influenced by private biotechnology “stakeholders.”
The majority of private-sector sponsored or supported work in this area is designed and carried out in ways that highlight circumstances in which GE crop technology can, or has reduced pesticide use. Such examples surely exist. But USDA pesticide use data show clearly that today’s major GE crops in the U.S. have markedly increased overall pesticide use.
But because there are more than 20 studies in the literature reporting positive results or viewpoints regarding the impacts of GE crops on pesticide use for every study reporting the opposite result, the scientific community “consensus” is based on science a mile wide and a few inches deep, and just plain wrong.
My Work for a “Special Interest” Group
In 2005, I took a full-time job with benefits as Chief Scientist of The Organic Center (TOC). This small non-profit worked to integrate and disseminate research on the impacts of organic food and farming on human and environmental health. I worked for TOC for about seven years, and produced over two-dozen reports, many containing a heavy dose of original empirical results.
I built models quantifying the environmental footprint of dairy farms, how small changes in dietary choices can dramatically improve the nutritional quality of an individual’s diet, and on the impact of organic farming on the frequency, levels, and risk of pesticide residues in organic vs. conventional foods.
Some of these reports contained novel findings on topics of intense interest among many Americans and policy-makers. We worked hard to gain press coverage on these reports, with spotty-at-best results.
Several times I contacted well-known reporters covering the food and ag beat, individuals who had covered my past work in the Congress, NAS, or for BCS clients. I would present the findings in a new TOC report, in the hope of getting them to write about the analytical results and their implications. Often they found the work compelling, but rarely wrote more than a short and perfunctory story. Several times I called these reporters up a few weeks after the release of a report, and asked them why they felt the results were not newsworthy, and the answer was usually something like —
“Well Chuck, you work for a special interest group now, and if I cover your report and quote you, I have to give equal space to x, y, or z, and my editor (or the reporter) does not want to do that.”
Obviously, during my tenure as Chief Scientist of The Organic Center, my source of funding was “destiny.” The quality of my work, and its focus on issues of concern, was dwarfed by the taint of where my funding came from. This was a bitter pill to swallow, both for me and the funders of TOC.
The WSU Years
I became an Adjunct Faculty member at Washington State University (WSU) around 2008, in part because during my tenure at The Organic Center, TOC funded several scientists at WSU conducting research on the nutritional quality of organic food. We raised and provided several hundred thousand dollars to WSU faculty during my years at TOC, and TOC and its organic industry funders benefited from the world-class research carried out by WSU faculty, and published in some of the top scientific journals.
TOC invested in WSU research because we were confident the faculty would do quality research that would stand the test of time, not because we knew or hoped they would conduct research designed to produce results favorable to the organic industry.
In 2012, I was offered and accepted a full-time Research Professor position at the Pullman campus of WSU. The position was not tenure track, and was subject to annual renewal by the Dean. I was responsible for raising all funding required to support my position, and the program I started, “Measure to Manage,” or M2M.
Four of the organic companies/coops that supported my work at The Organic Center (Whole Foods, Stonyfield, UNFI, and Organic Valley/CROPP) pledged resources sufficient to cover my salary over three years (mid 2012 through mid 2015). I raised the balance of M2M program funds from other companies and foundations. The M2M program thrived and grew, and carried out some of the highest impact work conducted at WSU in that time period.
Just a couple of months after becoming a WSU Research Professor, a paper I had been working on for three years was slated to come out on September 25, 2015 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe (ESE). It quantified the impact of GE corn, soybeans and cotton on pesticide use in the U.S. from 1996-2012. It showed that pesticide use had gone up considerably in these three crops, in contrast to industry PR that still claimed GE crops in the U.S. were reducing pesticide use.
I knew the paper would attract some media attention both in the U.S. and globally, and also that it would trigger a perhaps strong immune response from the biotechnology industry and its advocates, including many who worked for land grant universities, including WSU.
I presented these facts to the WSU press office, and asked them if they/WSU wanted to be involved in the media coverage on my about-to-appear paper. The Dean was consulted, and said in effect, if the work is published in a peer-reviewed journal, it should be treated like any other work from a WSU scientist. And so, the WSU press office wrote and disseminated a press release on the day the paper went online, and a WSU blog was posted. The media coverage was extensive and generally positive, and the backlash was nearly instantaneous. These events, the paper, and subsequent work on the topic are presented elsewhere in Hygeia Analytics (see Impacts of GE Crops on Pesticide Use).
My 2012 ESE paper has now been accessed over 250,000 times, and is the most heavily accessed paper in the near-twenty year history of Environmental Sciences Europe. Other high-impact papers followed from the M2M program on the fatty acid profile of organic vs. conventional milk (PLOS ONE, 2013), and the nutritional differences between organic and conventional plant based foods (British Journal of Nutrition, 2014).
The M2M program, and our website and published papers, were receiving significant attention, but triggered heartburn among some “stakeholders.” During the same period, the role played by other land grant university scientists in support of agricultural biotechnology PR efforts had become a high-profile issue.
In response to public records requests in 2014 and 2015, tens of thousands of emails surfaced between land grant scientists and biotechnology companies and trade associations. These communications provided a rare window into how closely intertwined some academic program funding, and scientists, had become with the biotechnology industry and its trade associates and allies. This set the stage for Eric Lipton’s New York Times piece.
The New York Times Weighs in on Funding and Scientific Integrity
The front page of the Sunday, September 5, 2015 New York Times, published a remarkable, long story by Eric Lipton entitled “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show”. The author had spent months pouring over thousands of emails to and from land grant scientists, and ag biotech companies and PR advocates.
A Times editor insisted that Lipton explore whether the same sort of tactics might be occurring in the organic industry, presumably to avoid the impression that the Times was concerned about such extra-curricular activities when the beneficiary was the agricultural biotechnology industry, but not when it might be organic food companies.
I was, at the time, one of very few land grant university scientists receiving a significant share of my funding from organic food companies, coops, and organizations. This was no secret – during both my years at The Organic Center and WSU, all funding sources were acknowledged, and indeed credited with advancing our research. Eric Lipton surveyed my work and funding, and filed a public record request for my email traffic during my tenure at WSU. You can read 83 of my emails if you visit the online version of the story.
The rest of this story is history. Suffice it to say the source of my funding had become a prominent, newsworthy issue, irrespective of the quality or impact of the scientific work that I had done with organic industry funding.
As a result, I have thought a lot about how funding impacts scientists and scientific integrity.
The Impact of Funding on My Work
I have great respect for my colleague Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University. Marion has conducted research on the role of funding in projecting the outcome of scientific research. She is a firm believer in the notion that funding source is destiny in the conduct of science. Her Food Politics Blog is always informative and provocative. Her blogs on the New York Times piece and my “conflicted” studies, present her views clearly.
Fred Kirschenmann begins his essay “What Constitutes Sound Science?” with these passages about the good professor Nestle:
“Marion Nestle has argued that the public no longer receives the best scientific information regarding diet and health…She outlines in her provocative book, Food Politics, how the food industry regularly stifles the scientific community when its findings conflict with the financial interests of the industry.”
“Nestle, in fact, comes to a disturbing conclusion. Science, she suggests, is now often used to defend a position already adopted rather than to discover new or truer descriptions of reality. It is science designed to persuade, rather than science meant to explore and enlighten.”
Without saying it directly, Dr. Nestle asserts that scientists cannot help but twist their results in favor of the interests of their funder, if a funder indeed has a known, selfish interest in the outcome of the work. Based on her widely shared view of the role of funding in scientific integrity, my work from 1979 through 1990 was presumptively not biased by the source of my salary, while my organic-industry funded work from 2005 through 2015 surely was.
I find this allegation offensive, albeit understandable. In the world I have worked in, accuracy and careful presentation of data is absolutely essential, because any slip up, any perception of bias in the selection of data or analytical methods, will be jumped all over and used to discredit the work, and me.
Clearly, other scientists have disagreed with the findings of my work, but no one has ever pointed to a hidden effort to cook the books, cherry pick data, or ground an analysis in assumptions clearly divorced from reality. My sources of data, my methods and assumptions, and the models I use are always clearly described. Of course, my work is constrained by the quality of the data I have to work with and the assumptions that have to be made, but that reality impacts all scientists, and always will.
Marion Nestle is right about one thing – a scientist’s source of funding typically dictates what he or she has a chance to work on. When funding is provided by a corporation or industry, as in the case of much work on land grant university campuses today and my work on organic food and farming over the last decade, the funders have certain hopes and expectations regarding both what the work will show, and the impact the work will have, once done and published.
It is also true that if a private funder does not like the outcome of a scientist’s work, for whatever reason, or the degree to which it influences public policy, or the ways it surfaces in media discussion, it is unlikely that more funding will be provided from that private source.
Likewise, if a private funder sees benefits in the scientific arena, in the media, and/or in the marketplace from a body of research they funded in whole or part, they are likely to keep investing in it. For this to be true, the findings and methods must typically be published in respected peer-reviewed journals, there must be a body of work by multiple scientists reaching reasonably consistent conclusions, and the research methods and findings must be integrated into the evolving scientific thought in a given area of inquiry.
The above conditions were clearly not all met by my work during the TOC years, but were met during my three years at WSU. Notwithstanding Marion Nestle’s rule of thumb (funding drives science outcomes), this difference explains why the media, and policy makers, paid scant attention to my TOC reports, but heavily and positively covered the peer-reviewed papers published during my three years as a WSU Research Professor.
Marion Nestle worries that the scientific community has let down its guard, and the tools and processes relied on in the past to separate the scientific wheat from the chaff are not capable now of dealing with the contemporary onslaught of special and private-sector driven science. I agree with her, but this does not mean that all science paid for by companies or special interest groups is biased and should not be taken seriously.
Most people trust science funded by the March of Dimes, Consumers Union, the American Heart Association, and other organizations with clear public health and public interest missions.
Most people, and nearly all reporters, are skeptical of research funded by corporations or their front-groups that seems clearly designed to explain away a problem linked to some product or technology, or promote some new product, technology, or way of producing things. And so, the skepticism directed at my work for The Organic Center, and during the WSU years, was appropriate.
But back to Marion Nestle’s main assertion that research supported by government agencies and foundations is likely to be more rigorous, balanced, and valuable for policy-makers than work funded by companies or foundations dedicated to achieving a “special interest.”
Obviously, this is true some of the time. There is now a compelling series of papers showing the influence of funding source on the outcome of drug trials and reviews, or on the performance and safety of pesticides or agricultural biotechnology.
It is also getting harder for scientists to secure funding from governments and public institutions with no strings attached, since government agencies increasingly have a stake in the direction and outcome of science. The U.S. government, for example, is openly and proudly an advocate of agricultural biotechnology, technology that was originally deemed safe forevermore by Dan Quayle. No one should be shocked by the fact that the government spends almost nothing on independent research on the costs, risks, and benefits of GE crop technology.
Plus, the trivial funding allocated to government-funded research on GE crops is then carefully managed to assure that the results of research do not pose a serious threat to the “scientific consensus” (i.e., mythology) surrounding this technology.
And then the government grant, peer-review process has a substantial impact on who and what gets funded, and the direction and conduct of science. Most programs can fund fewer than one in three submitted proposals. All it takes to push a quality proposal down below the “in the money” line is one reviewer determined to nitpick the methods section, question whether the budget is too big or big enough, or to argue that the research is focused on solving a problem that no longer exists because of some new silver bullet that has come onto the market.
Special Interest Science Must – and Can — Earn the Benefit of Doubt
Countervailing pressures also come into play for scientists working on controversial issues, with funding from special interest groups or companies. Their work is automatically regarded as suspect. They know the data sources, methods, analytical tools, and statistics they rely on will be picked apart if the work threatens some entrenched interest or “stakeholder.” And they also expect to go through a particularly thorough, and sometimes biased, peer review process prior to getting their work published in a prominent journal.
The above countervailing forces are most acute when the results of research question scientific orthodoxy, as is sometimes the case. But this is exactly when it is most important for the research to see the light of day, regardless of who funded the work.
My work on the nutritional differences between organic and conventional food shows that for many foods, and some nutrients, organically grown food contains higher concentrations of health-promoting nutrients. Organic farmers and food companies expected such differences to exist, but their expectations and ad-hoc data were not persuasive among skeptics, or in the market place. They needed and wanted to see hard science done that quantifies the differences in ways most scientists, journalists, investors, and policy-makers would accept.
Fortunately, there are now over 300 high-quality studies comparing the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods, grown basically side-by-side. The quality of these studies has improved steadily because of peer review and the advance of science. Especially in work done over the last decade, the overall results are reasonably consistent and clear, and are now published in several journals. The results from my work, mostly funded by organic food companies, are very similar to the results from teams funded by their national governments, foundations, or companies.
In addition, it is worth pointing out that my work on this topic does not identify nor support advantages for organic food reported in other, similar research projects. If my work and empirical findings rely on cherry picked data and cooking the books, why would I do that inconsistently and actually refute previously published, nutritional advantages of organic food? Why would I even bother to subject my work to the months-long peer-review process managed by top-flight journals?
Hygeia Analytics and funding will no doubt be an ongoing issue, and for some an obsession. Bring it on.
Funding sources dedicated to this website will be fully disclosed.
Data sources and methods behind work presented via this website will be spelled out on the page to the full extent possible, or a link provided to where this is done. Hygeia Analytics is dedicated to open source science, and when anyone has better data, an improved method to understand nature, please share it and we will try to understand its applications and implications.
Hygeia Analytics will do everything possible to present accurate, fair, balanced information. It will also be forthright, and even blunt at times, especially when mythology, or experiments that do not pass the laugh test masquerade as “sound science.”
The agricultural and food sciences in the U.S. are losing touch with the meaning of scientific integrity, and as a result, are losing the confidence of consumers, here and abroad. Unless this trend is reversed, people will look elsewhere for guidance as they pursue improved health through wiser food choices, and the trust around the world placed in U.S. food and agricultural exports, and U.S.-driven technology and policy, will wither.
If current trends continue, the stage may soon be set for a resurgence of mythology of the sort the Greeks and Romans embraced when aspiring to good health. Hence, the name of this website, Hygeia Analytics.