Ten years ago, I worked in the United States Senate and helped draft and pass the Physician Payments Sunshine Act. The law requires companies to report monies and gifts they give physicians, which are known to influence what doctors prescribe or promote. Thanks to the Sunshine Act, you can look up doctors on a public database to see who is paying them and how much. Several other countries have passed or are considering similar laws.
Nothing similar exists in other disciplines like plant biology, climate science, or toxicology. We need a “sunshine law” for science that would expose all sorts of conflicts of interest and industry manipulation that skew research on food, synthetic chemicals, pesticides, air pollution, genetic technology, and the climate.
Since the 1990s, tobacco and the industries allied with it, such as the food, chemical, and fossil fuel sectors, have worked especially hard to influence a field called risk analysis, which determines whether products cause harm. The agri-chemical giant Monsanto has been accused in recent years of manipulating employees at the Environmental Protection Agency on the dangers of glyphosate; petrochemical companies publish questionable studies on air pollution in corporate-friendly journals; and biotech lobbyists promote news stories that attack government agencies.
The fossil fuel industry has also funded research departments at prestigious American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and UC Berkeley. Most of the climate science community remains silent on this, but two students at Princeton recently exposed how their university has been influenced by companies such as ExxonMobil and BP, which spend paltry sums funding academics to buy social credibility — even as they pour enormous amounts into lobbying against bills that limit greenhouse gas emissions.
In some cases, scientists have denied or attempted to dismiss peer-reviewed research showing how financial influence biases science. Five years ago, the New York Times ran a front-page story exposing the undisclosed ties between Kevin Folta, a plant biologist at the University of Florida, and Monsanto. Cheerleaders for GMO agriculture characterized the Times article as “laden with falsehoods, improper inferences and innuendoes.” (Folta sued the paper for defamation, but a judge dismissed the case.)
The scientific community has not been entirely naive about corporate influence, and some experts have been discussing the problem since the late 1960s. In 1970, critics charged the National Academies of Science with pro-industry bias because chemical and fossil fuel insiders dominated a committee examining the health effects of airborne lead. The following year, the academies approved its first conflict of interest policy, which required scientists serving on its panels to disclose any ties to special interests. Ironically, the scientist who led that reform faced his own accusations of corporate bias for sitting on the board of a food conglomerate.
Historically, biomedicine has been both heavily influenced by industry and a leader in pushing back. In 1984, the New England Journal of Medicine became the first prominent research journal to adopt a financial conflict of interest rule requiring authors to disclose any ties to special interests. JAMA endorsed a similar policy the next year. Shortly after, the National Institutes of Health — the largest funder of biomedicine on the planet — enacted a disclosure policy for grantees. Eventually, the journal Science passed a conflict of interest policy in 1992, and Nature came to the table in 2001.
Of course, experts debate the effectiveness of these policies and whether they go far enough. Corporations have workarounds like creating a “council” or “committee” through a PR firm, as the agency Hill & Knowlton did for tobacco companies when it launched the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC). As Harvard historian Allan Brandt documented, TIRC funding of academic researchers helped chill scientific discourse and create doubt that smoking caused disease, while simultaneously granting tobacco companies the prestige that comes from associating with universities.
Climate science and other research fields need to catch up and show greater transparency in corporate funding. First, all science journals should implement strong conflict of interest policies, as are common in medical journals, that require study authors to disclose any financial interests. The federal government already places such requirements on scientists who receive federal grants and could exert greater impact by requiring them to publish taxpayer-funded research only in journals with strong financial transparency policies.
We should also demand that America’s science institutions require more training in science ethics. (When national researchers surveyed top research institutions, they found that those with medical schools exceeded federal mandates for instruction in “responsible conduct” in research). Ethics education should emphasize how corporations have influenced broad swaths of American science.
Finally, we must hold the media accountable. In September, the New York Times published an article that cited microbiologist Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) as an expert on coronavirus misinformation. But the Times did not note that Berezow is the organization’s VP of science communications — which is problematic because ACSH has over the years received funding from the likes of Chevron, Coca-Cola, Bayer, Monsanto, McDonald’s, and the tobacco conglomerate Altria. Berezow has also attacked Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists at the Times for exposing corporate ties between academics and the agrochemical industry. Readers deserve to be informed of such associations.
In 2017, Forbes deleted several articles written by Henry Miller and Kavin Senapathy that reported favorably on GMO agriculture after the New York Times reported that Monsanto ghost wrote one of Miller’s articles.
Corporations have been influencing science for as long as science has informed public health policies. The more sunlight we can let shine on that influence, the better.
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