Corporate Science Politicization

October 25, 2005 - 11:15 pm

If you’re in the mood for a heavy read, the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health has dedicated an entire issue [pdf] to the corporate corruption of science. The issue is a nice complement to Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science.

I. Overview Articles

The first article, Maximizing Profit and Endangering Health: Corporate Strategies to Avoid Litigation and Regulation [pdf], looks at the how corporations and industries use scientific, legal, and public relations tactics to “1) secure the least restrictive possible regulatory environment; and 2) avoid legal liability for worker or consumer deaths or injuries.” Susanna Rankin Bohme, John Zorabedian, and David Egilman explain how the “triumvirate” of corporations, PR firms, and big legal defense firms have settled on a fairly stable tactical blueprint, involving subsidiary scientific firms, think tanks, astroturf groups, and media to influence public risk assessment. Those entities then “manufacture doubt,” produce “science to specification,” and “launder science” to remove the stain of industry sponsorship.

The PR firm Hill & Knowlton is highlighted as a pioneer in the use of corporate sponsored Science Advisory Boards, such as the Council for Tobacco Research (inaccurately called the “Center for Tobacco Research” in the article) and the Beryllium Industry Scientific Advisory Council, to advance “the goals of limiting regulation and avoiding liability.” The PR firm Burson-Marsteller is singled out for its expertise at creating astroturf front groups, such as Philip Morris’ National Smokers’ Alliance.

Most interesting was the discussion of Hill & Knowlton’s media strategy, intended to “influence the public, legislators, regulators, and potential jurors” on the health risks of asbestos. Driven by a fear that the emerging public consensus on asbestos threats would increase the likelihood that juries would find them liable, Hill & Knowlton worked to “capture ’share of mind’ on the national level.” They “sponsor ghostwritten editorials that advance industry positions without acknowledging their source.” They use unattributed Video News Releases. They exploit media sympathy, earned by billion dollar advertising contracts, to get friendly coverage.

The article ends by urging those concerned about environment, health and safety issues to embrace some of the corporate tactics, only to promote accurate scientific information to oppose the industry backed disinformation.

The second article [pdf], by the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Executive Director Michael Jacobson, looks at the costs that accompany corporate sponsorship of nonprofit health associations, often paid “in the currency of credibility and independence.” Jacobson examines industry entanglement and corruption of professional associations, health charities, universities, nominally independent nonprofit organizations, and international nonprofits. He uses CSPI’s Integrity in Science database for meaningful anecdotal support of his analysis. A recurring theme, one that I’ve touched on before, is the way these groups abuse non-profit disclosure regulations to covertly influence public policy. Much more on this problem can be found at the Center for Political Accountability.

II. Epidemiological Criticism

In the third article [pdf], Valerio Gennaro and Lorenzo Tomatis focuses broadly on the design issues that often skew industry funded epidemiological studies toward specified, sympathetic results. They highlight 15 “errors to be avoided” in epidemiological testing, errors unfortunately common in industry backed research. It’s no surprise, then, that such research routinely reports significantly lower health and safety risks than independent research.

In the next article, David Eligman and Marion Billings dig deep into three papers (Wong, Goodman et al., and McDonald) used by the Automobile Industry to challenge the connection between asbestos brakes and asbestos-caused diseases. Two particular tactics – shifting standards on causation and manipulation of scientific data – lead the effort to obscure the scientific connection.

The causation argument exploits the difficulty and expense of conducting multiple types of epidemiological tests while also emphasizing the relative merits of different tests. For example, industry might argue in one case that animal studies are necessary to prove causation; in another, human studies, in a third both, and so on. Sometimes, though, industry attacks causation by dramatically distorting statistical arguments on significance or insurmountably nit-picking studies that are strongly probative, but not definitive. T

The data manipulation argument critiques “selection of inappropriate studies for re-analysis, selective presentation of study data, non-differential exposure-determination bias, inadequate sample size, comparison of an exposed cohort with an inappropriate control group, and misuse of confidence intervals.”

III. Historical Articles

The next two articles, one by Peter Infante [pdf] and one by Jennifer Beth Sass [pdf], look at industry influence over OSHA’s designation of permissible exposure limits for butadiene, a petroleum byproduct used in the manufacture of rubber. Chemical manufacturers persistently attempted to manipulate the rule-making process, lobbying to reduce carcinogenic risk assessments, stacking the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Panel [pdf] with industry advocates, eventually using its partially successful efforts to muddle the system as evidence of scientific uncertainty. Industry efforts were generally unsuccessful.

William Kovarik’s article [pdf] looks at the historical circumstances surrounding ethyl lead as a fuel additive, an example of the “historical amnesia that is typical in the field of environment and public health policy.” A rash outbreak of “violent insanity” in the 1920s in plants producing leaded fuel additives sparked a controversy that was forgotten, under General Motors, DuPont, and Standard Oil influence, for the next half century.

In another historical piece [pdf], Jock McCulloch looks at the conditions of asbestos mine workers from the 1920s through the present, arguing that the comprehensive corporate control over everything from miner medical care to work conditions distorted our understanding of asbestos’ threats. “Where the results [of industry medical studies] were favorable they were released into the public domain and used as evidence that employers were providing a safe work environment. Where the results were unfavorable they were suppressed, and fictionalized accounts of disease rates were published in their place.”

A fifth article [pdf], by Phyllis J. Mullenix, looks at scientific knowledge of fluoride poisoning. Mullenix provides another example of the almost total control exercised by industry over necessary medical information, leading to “gross underestimation of the number of cases of fluoride poisoning in the United States. Regulatory change is needed immediately to correct past distortions and restore confidence that harmful inhalation exposures to fluoride and fluorine are prevented.”

IV. Sewer Sludge

The final article [pdf] I’ll address deals with the risks of “biosolids,” to use the Orwellian industry moniker for sewage sludge. Caroline Snyder’s article deals with an issue I’ve followed in some detail over at PR Watch — the use of sewage as a fertilizer or soil treatment, including for crops grown for human consumption.

Snyder lays out an “unholy alliance” between industry, local government, and the Environmental Protection Agency to minimize the risks and emphasize the benefit of sending sewage sludge out to farm. The EPA was completely captured by corporate interests, in turn becoming reliant on those same interests for scandal management and public relations. The municipal waste management industry profits handsomely from the arrangement, while municipal governments enjoy an easy solution to their waste disposal problems.

The details of the case are striking. Relevant science was subject to complementary political pressure from within the agency and from without, leaving no defense for whistleblowers and no check on abuse. Anecdotally, people were, and are, dying from exposure to sludge toxics. Yet the PR effort goes on, with the complicity of multiple levels of government.

In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences reevaluated the science [pdf] that underlay EPA’s original determination of the health effects of sludge. It concluded that “additional scientific work is needed to reduce persistent uncertainty about the potential for adverse human health effects from exposure to biosolids. There have been anecdotal allegations of disease, and many scientific advances have occurred since the Part 503 rule was promulgated. To assure the public and to protect public health, there is a critical need to update the scientific basis of the rule…”

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