The Corporate Corruption of Science

During the last half of the twentieth century, science expanded from being the foundation of technological progress, to becoming a source of guidance for ameliorating the resulting impacts. The marriage of science with public policy holds the promise of enlightened legislation, but only as long as science avoids being corrupted in the process. The scientific process assumes the highest standard of honesty from participants. But science is now routinely at the center of controversies where economic incentives to influence scientific opinion toward a consensus favorable to commercial interests are often irresistibly large. Without effective reforms, this may well lead to the neutralization of science, leaving resolution of these controversies to market forces with potentially disastrous consequences for the environment.

Although commercial interests have always sought favorable scientific opinion, the first large scale efforts began with the mid-twentieth century tobacco industry. Mounting evidence that their products were addictive and lethal prompted their sponsorship of "scientists" paid to present studies in industry journals and conferences that superficially appeared to conform to scientific principles but were actually rigged. These tactics were highly successful, allowing the industry to delay regulation for nearly half a century. The overwhelming evidence accumulated by government-supported scientists eventually led to regulation. While this might argue for the robustness of the scientific process, it also prompted adoption of increasingly sophisticated tactics, and not only by tobacco. Beginning in the late 1980s, tobacco's allies advanced the common theme of "sound science," which translated into standards of scientific proof that modern epidemiology or environmental science could rarely meet. This reflected a strategic shift from emphasis on specific issues, to a more general indictment of the legitimacy of the scientific process. The implicit targets of this campaign were largely government-supported scientists, who are the source of most of the data inimical to industry. Failure to meet the high standards of "sound science" implies the practitioners are not "sound scientists," regardless of the preponderance of evidence produced, and ignoring the fact that environmental and human health issues are intrinsically more complex than eighteenth century physics. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, these new tactics found an enthusiastic proponent in Exxon Corporation.

Exxon has tried to portray the region impacted by the spill as having already been polluted by other sources, and in any case as fully recovered by the early 1990s. Their position is likely motivated by the "re-opener" clause of the civil settlement between Exxon and the governments of Alaska and the United States, which provides for up to $100 million in additional payments to cover restoration costs of any unforeseen damages. To support their position, Exxon has supported a host of studies by their consultants and launched a campaign to intimidate and discredit publicly-supported scientists whose studies are contradictory. Tactics have included misrepresentation of government data, manipulating agendas of scientific meetings, abuse of the scientific peer-review process, shadowing government field studies and groundless allegation of scientific misconduct. These attacks are possible for three reasons. First, Exxon is so powerful economically that a substantial proportion of the active participants in the small field of oil pollution research find that it pays well to advance company policy. These consultants are often asked to peer-review contributions to scientific journals, and the anonymity of the process provides an open door for abuses. Economic clout may also be an effective tool for manipulating the agendas of scientific meetings (e.g. by ensuring that Exxon-supported scientists always speak after government scientists to facilitate rebuttal). Second, while unethical, it is not illegal to publish knowingly false information in a scientific journal, provided the funding source is private. Numerous safeguards are in place to prevent publicly-supported scientists from lying in print, but these simply do not apply to their privately-funded counterparts. Third, unlike government scientists, the data and records of privately-funded scientists may be kept secret, so their research contributions may escape the scrutiny necessary to expose scientific fraud.

This has created a very tilted playing field. It could be made more level by finding ways to hold privately-funded scientists to the same standards of public accountability as government scientists. For example, editors of scientific journals could insist on public access to records as a condition of publication, as some already do. These editors could also formally recognize the government's definition of scientific misconduct, and they could establish procedures for evaluating claims of misconduct fairly. Government scientists who commit scientific misconduct already risk criminal sanctions, but these are probably not appropriate for privately funded scientists. However, a permanent ban on publishing in scientific journals, publicly announced, might constitute an effective and appropriate sanction on all scientists who transgress, because scientific credibility depends crucially on publication in respected journals.

In addition, government scientists need protection from punitive abuses of the Freedom of Information Act. All scientists need to evaluate their data and formulate their professional conclusions in private and without interference, but having announced those conclusions to the public in the form of a peer-reviewed scientific contribution, they should permit public scrutiny of their supporting data, whether in government, academia or industry. Currently only intramural government scientists may be forced to release data prematurely, without the opportunity to examine it for errors or interpret it-academic scientists supported by government grants are explicitly exempted. These exemptions should be extended to government scientists.

In his last book, The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan made a passionate plea for keeping science honest, lest we fall into a modern version of the dark ages. Scientific reform has yet to achieve the attention it deserves, not least because scientists like to think of themselves as above all that. But without more effective safeguards, the process and indeed the products of science may become little more than a sophisticated form of advertising, and our ability to deal effectively with the host of environmental, human health and food safety problems that face us may become seriously compromised, with potentially tragic consequences.