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Conflicts of Interest in Environmental Science
By Jacob Speer

   A debate over conflicts of interest rages in the field of medical science. Concern about financial conflicts has been triggered by such controversies as the New England Journal of Medicine’s failure to enforce its disclosure guidelines and a University of Pennsylvania researcher’s failure to adequately disclose his conflicts to a patient who died during a clinical drug trial. Incredibly, what is of paramount concern in medical science has been of relatively no concern in environmental science. Why?

   No doubt, it is the specter of unidentifiable deaths that may have been caused by undisclosed conflicts of interest that has drawn the attention of many journalists and prompted the medical community to begin addressing the problem. Moreover, the enormous investments by drug companies in academic biomedical research has raised obvious questions.

   Research on environmental issues should be held to the same level of scrutiny, because if bad science ends up poisoning our rivers, polluting our air, and contaminating our food, the overall consequences could be just as dangerous as drugs and medical devices.

Why a Policy on Conflicts of Interest?

   As the Webster’s New World Dictionary definition has it, a conflict of interest is “a conflict between one’s obligation to the public good and one’s self-interest.” Exactly where the public good ends and self-interest begins is not always clear. Even so, institutions that conduct environmental research (such as universities and federal organizations) and journals that publish environmental research, should institute strict conflict-of-interest policies to minimize the influence of special-interest funding on that research.

   Conflicts of interest between scientists and companies include direct funding of research, stock ownership, consulting fees, and other connections. Such conflicts of interest, or “competing interests,” can affect everything from government policies to scientific research to news stories. Thus, disclosure—when prevention is not possible—of conflicts of interest is needed. Of course, just because research is funded by industry does not necessarily mean that it is biased or wrong. Rather, receipt of such funding is one of many factors that need to be considered in evaluating study or a scientist’s statements.

   Full and meaningful disclosure of potential conflicts of interest is a key first step, because funding from special interests may produce bias in the design and results of a study. Researchers may lean toward publishing studies favorable to the funding organization when in actuality the study—in design, results, or both—is flawed or found problems with a chemical or practice. Disclosure policies are an excellent and gentle tool to reduce intentional and unintentional bias or, at the very least, to alert readers to the possibility of a bias.

   Many, if not most, environmental journals lack adequate disclosure policies. In contrast, several major medical journals have adopted or strengthened policies of disclosure for potential conflicts of interest for authors. For example, The British Medical Journal, Journal of the American Medical Association, New England Journal of Medicine, and others require authors to provide detailed information about conflicts of interest and financial ties, with some of that information being provided in the published studies. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently wrote to more than a dozen environmental journals, urging that they provide full disclosure of possible conflicts of interest. Importantly, such disclosures should extend beyond funding of the study itself to include consulting arrangements, speaking honoraria and the like.

   Clearly, environmental journals are light years behind top medical journals. That must be corrected, considering the wide ramifications that environmental research has on the earth and its population.

Undisclosed Conflicts

   Air and water pollution, forest management, and global warming are just a few of the many important current environmental issues. Potential and real conflicts of interest affecting scientists in such areas need to be disclosed to help prevent flawed science from inappropriately influencing public policies.

   The issue of global warming illustrates that point. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprised of 2,500 relevant scientists worldwide, was established by the United Nations in 1988 to study global warming. The panel concluded that global warming is real and is a threat to our environment. The panel has estimated that the earth’s temperature will rise by 6 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century if present trends continue. That could lead to flooding of coastal areas, disease, and food shortages. Notwithstanding the scientific consensus on global warming, a few scientists—who probably not coincidently receive energy-industry funding—continue to question if the Earth’s temperature is rising and question the need for action.

   Dr. Robert Balling, a researcher at Arizona State University, has been a persistent skeptic of global warming. He has been quoted in the New York Times and elsewhere as an authority on the issue, frequently called to testify before congressional panels and other public groups, and repeatedly raised questions about whether global warming is occurring. What is typically not reported, however, is that according to Ozone Action, an environmental organization, Dr. Balling has received at least $311,000 from oil and coal industries and from the Kuwaiti government.

   In July, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report that found serious deficiencies in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) procedures for preventing conflicts of interest. Scientists who advise the EPA on regulations governing toxic chemicals were found to have ties to the affected industries. As reported in the Washington Post Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), who requested the study, said, “The American people expect decisions that affect environmental and public health regulations to be based on unbiased science, but this GAO study reveals polluting industries are in a position to influence panel findings.”

   Also, the United States Congress created the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to advise the government on scientific and technical matters. Since the NAS conducts research at the behest of the federal government, its reports greatly affect lawmakers, regulatory agencies, and the general public. Hence, its policies and practices on prevention and disclosure of conflicts of interest must be especially sensitive to preserving its integrity. However, the NAS record has several serious blemishes over the past two decades.

   For example, in April 2000, an NAS panel issued a report on genetically engineered crops. That report’s credibility was questioned because at least eight of the 12 panel members had financial ties to related industries, including ties to biotechnology and pesticide companies, and three members were critiquing the very regulatory plan that they themselves had helped formulate when they worked at the Environmental Protection Agency. As reported in Science magazine, Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) urged the academy to “scrap the study" because the panel was "tainted by pervasive conflicts of interest.”

   More recently, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) sent a letter to the NAS questioning why possible conflicts were released about some, but not all, members of a panel convened to study arsenic in drinking water. The SBA wrote, “We do not assume that the current subcommittee is unbalanced. We simply want the Academy to follow its own well crafted public procedures and allow the public to participate.” NAS responded to that inconsistency by releasing information about possible conflicts for all members.

   Last year, at the urging of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Natural Resources Defense Council, and others, the NAS made a strong commitment to greater openness. As a result the NAS asks all candidates for committees to complete a “Potential Sources of Bias and Conflict of Interest” form. The academy’s web site now provides conflict-of-interest information, along with biographical data, for nominees to all of the group’s committees.

   The NAS, The British Medical Journal, and others are setting an example that environmental publications should follow. At a time when industry is buying ever greater influence in the scientific community, it is essential that financial-disclosure and conflict-of-interest policies be adopted and implemented by universities, scientific journals, the general media, and scientists themselves. Clearly, a company has every right to fund academic research and hire the most knowledgeable advisors it can find. However, if there are no rules, entrepreneurial instincts all too often will trump ethical concerns.

What Should Be Done?

   With such great public concern about momentous environmental problems, the scientific establishment must be above reproach. Obviously, strict policies to prevent or disclose conflicts of interest will not eliminate all problems, but by disclosure of funding and affiliations researchers provide valuable information. Full disclosure can only help decision makers and the public in evaluating such research.

   Environment and other scientific journals should adopt a policy of full and meaningful disclosure. Journals should obtain all of the following information from authors of studies and other articles and should disclose most of it in a footnote to the published studies. Disclosures should include:

  1. Financial or other significant relations (including consulting relations) with relevant companies, trade associations, unions, or other groups.
     
  2. Stock ownership in relevant companies or partnerships (other than mutual stock or bond funds).
     
  3. All sources of funding for the study; including funds that were provided to the researcher’s university or department.
     
  4. Information about the researcher’s patents, or plans to apply for patents, related to the subject matter of the paper.
     

   Two final points: First science writers and other journalists reach many more people than learned journals. They routinely should ask the scientists they interview about possible conflicts of interest. Such information should be provided to readers when it may have a bearing on a scientist’s credibility. The Washington Post has adopted a policy along those lines.

   Second, as important as disclosure of conflicts of interest is prevention of such conflicts. Official committees need not include any scientists with conflicts. Also, to help researchers decrease their reliance on corporate funding, the government should greatly increase funding for research on environmental issues.

   The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has launched an Internet site—www.IntegrityInScience.org—to provide information about the links between hundreds of scientists— mostly in the fields of nutrition, environment, toxicology, and medicine—and businesses. That site also includes information about some of the corporate support received by dozens of professional, health, and nonprofit organizations.

   If science lacks openness, it likewise lacks integrity; and having lost that, little worthy of the name “science” remains. Conflicts of interest threaten science. We must first protect science before we can protect the environment.

Jacob Speer
Integrity in Science Project
Center for Science in the Public Interest
 
Integrity in Science