When I was in graduate school, there was an ethics certification training at my university. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think it was specifically for science students. One scenario in the training covered a conflict of interest (COIs) — whether or not to disclose funding sources in an academic paper.
COIs are situations where an individual or group is working for multiple interests and serving one interest may mean working against another. The scenarios we went over in the training were pretty obvious, but it was still a good experience — and the only official opportunity I can recall where we discussed ethical conduct in research.
One public health academic I spoke to at a meeting shared that he wouldn’t do consulting work with a certain huge pesticide company, adding that it was tempting for some because it was so lucrative. COIs can be real or perceived, and it’s important to recognize them as a serious problem that can interfere with scientific objectivity.
“When money speaks, all else falls silent”
A Russian friend of mine quoted the above proverb to me once, which speaks pretty perfectly to this issue of COIs. Recently, I saw a compelling and important presentation on the International Network for Epidemiology in Policy (INEP) position statement on COIs. INEP started working on this document in 2014 and it was published at the end of 2020.
The position statement describes several cases of the misuse of epidemiological research to favor industry over public health, such as what Big Tobacco was up to in the 1980s, as well as examples of COI-related policies intended to protect the integrity of scientific research. INEP’s publication serves as a reminder to public health scientists of their mission: public health comes first.
I’m going to shamelessly quote straight from the slides, which are available here:
“If a scientist has a vested interest in how the TRUTH is presented, they can distort the truth… Scientific integrity can be undermined... Public trust in the science of epidemiology can be eroded… the public and the environment can be harmed.” Ain’t that the truth.
I smell a lack of ethics
There are several case examples covered in this 95-page INEP publication, and it’s really worth a read. One example from 2020, exposed in Environmental Health News, was an article on endocrine disruption published by 19 toxicologists in eight different journals. However, it was not a work of original research; in reality it was an opinion piece by toxicologists with ties to the chemical industry.
None of these toxicologists had studied endocrinology or endocrine disrupting chemicals. Among the toxicologists were editors for six of the eight journals, all of which are journals published by Elsevier (which I have published in before, and which apparently really needs to have a look at watchdogging its authors’ COI disclosures).
The timing of these 2020 publications came before the European Parliament's vote on their resolution on the European Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, which was expected to include endocrine disruptor data. In 2013, the same group of toxicologists published an article in six toxicology journals, around the time of a European Union legislative effort to regulate endocrine disrupting compounds. These editorials were meant to “foster the views of the chemical industry at the expense of human health.” This is not a good look for toxicology, and the Environmental Health News piece linked above called on toxicologists to stand up for integrity in their field.
The Big Tobacco playbook
The tactics used to confuse the science around tobacco and more recently around the climate crisis include: distraction, creating doubt, calling for more studies (because of doubts!). Sound familiar? This is not new news, we’ve seen the pesticide industry employ these same tactics time and time again, specifically around the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos over the past 20 years.
It’s worth noting that while we fight for scientific integrity in research, industry by industry and journal by journal, you can also do your own COI research and reading. The Industry Documents Library, hosted at the University of California San Francisco, is helpful for researching various industry activities — tobacco, the food industry, and opioid documents are all accessible there. It’s also a good way to find names of consultants for various industries, and some of these players show up in a lot of places.
Conflicts of interest lead to misuse (and ignorance) of epidemiological science that can lead to the continued use of highly hazardous pesticides like chlorpyrifos. Sound science is the basis of PAN’s work, and we’ll continue calling out and pushing back against COIs where we see them.