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Interview With A Human Rights Activist On Recent Revelations About Prominent Epidemiologists

[Ed. Kathleen Ruff is founder of the human rights website and Senior Advisor on Human Rights to the Rideau Institute. Her report, “Exporting Harm: How Canada markets asbestos to the developing world”, brought to public attention the destructive role that Canada has played on the world stage as propagandist for the asbestos industry. In 2011, she received the Canadian Public Health Association’s National Public Health Hero Award for her work in exposing the inaccurate propaganda of the asbestos industry and in mobilizing the scientific community to speak up about the dangers of chrysotile asbestos and to call for a ban on its mining and export. She has received the Rideau Institute Leadership Award for making an outstanding contribution to a progressive vision of Canada, in particular for challenging the influence of the asbestos lobby on Canada’s policy on asbestos and calling on the government to heed independent, reputable scientists. In October 2013, she was the recipient of a Special Award from the Collegium Ramazzini to honor her steadfast and effective advocacy in the international effort to ban the ongoing use of asbestos and for promoting better occupational and environmental health protections throughout the world.”]

Epi Monitor: As activist who works with scientists on human rights issues and on asbestos challenges, what is your reaction to the revelations about Pat Buffler's ties with and contributions to industry?

Ruff: I am sickened by Buffler’s betrayal of science and public health. If we truly believe that science and public health matter, then we have a duty to hold her accountable for her actions. It was not from ignorance or stupidity that Buffler testified on behalf of paint companies that lead in paint poses little risk to children. It was financially advantageous to her to misrepresent the science and to contribute to harming children. Inner-city children in impoverished families were harmed by continued exposure to dilapidated lead-paint in their homes during the 13 years’ delaying of remedial action, caused by the lengthy court case. Public health professionals have a deep moral duty to support greater health protection, not inferior protection, for the most vulnerable children. Buffler would not have allowed any children in her own family to be exposed to this known hazard.

Buffler is not the issue. Her misconduct is just one more example of many, where prestigious scientists, after many years of outstanding work, have betrayed their scientific and ethical commitments for personal financial gain. Just as in the fields of politics, law and finance, unethical conduct occurs in the field of science. We would be irresponsibly naive to pretend it does not.

The real issue is how the scientific and academic community deals with the problem. The University of California Berkeley knew that Buffler sat on the Board of Directors of FMC Corp., a major pesticide and herbicide company. The university, however, happily submitted to NIH Buffler’s applications for funding for research connected to pesticides and herbicides. Her university turned a blind eye to the fact that she did not declare her conflict of interest and condoned and supported her in this ethical misconduct.

The university says it was up to researchers to decide whether their financial ties posed a conflict. The university directly received more than $28 million from NIH for Buffler's research. It was certainly advantageous for the university to

choose to wash its hands of any responsibility for upholding conflict of interest standards. It was also a betrayal of ethics by UC Berkeley, by which it contributed to the contamination of scientific research. I believe that they deserve stronger blame than does Buffler. It is unfortunate when an individual chooses to err ethically; it is unforgivable when an institution chooses to do so.

UC Berkeley has published panegyrics of Buffler, praising her outstanding leadership in protecting the health of children. Buffler deserves praise for the positive contributions she made, but the university omits information on the role Buffler played in distorting the scientific evidence and denying harm of products, such as lead-containing paint, chrysotile asbestos, agricultural pesticides and herbicides and Agent Orange, produced by companies with whom she had a financial relationship.

Science does not allow the cover-up of inconvenient facts. Ethical standards require that all the critical facts be put forward. The justice system requires that witnesses tell the whole truth.

UC Berkeley is betraying science, academia and ethics by putting forward partial and slanted information, which constitutes dishonesty. By covering up the serious misconduct of Buffler, the university is condoning and encouraging such conduct.

Epi Monitor:  What is your reaction to the revelations about Paolo Boffetta's activities as reported in Le Monde in December?

Ruff: Paolo Boffetta is another example of a prestigious scientist who betrays science, by choosing to set up a lucrative consulting company and hire himself out to toxic industries, publishing findings that distort the scientific evidence and deny harm caused by the industries’ products.

The individual is not the issue. The question is whether the scientific community chooses to condone work that fails to meet scientific and ethical standards. Boffetta’s conduct, in putting forward slanted surveys of the scientific literature, favourable to the industry paying for the survey, and covering up conflict of interest, would not be acceptable in a first year science student. Yet Boffetta is presently the only candidate being considered to head France’s top epidemiology centre. This sends a clear message that scientific and ethical integrity are not considered necessary qualifications for the position.

As long as the scientific community and scientific institutions turn a blind eye to conduct by scientists that distorts the scientific literature in order to come up with conclusions that favour the industry that financed the work, we will see an increase in such conduct.

Epi Monitor:  How would you describe your expectations about scientists in these matters?

Ruff: Science, like ethics, is a hard taskmaster. Both require that the number one priority must be respect for the evidence, without fear or favour. It would be disingenuous to deny that there is, however, pressure on scientists, as on others in society, to tailor their work to please those who wield great financial, political and academic power.

This pressure has increased in an era when public funding for universities and research has diminished and academic dependence on and links to industries with billion dollar budgets has increased. More and more university departments and research are financed by industries, whose interests are affected by the research.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers recently released a report on collaborations between post-secondary institutions and industry. It follows a similar report conducted by the Center for American Progress detailing 10 pacts between energy companies and major U.S. Universities. Titled "Open for Business: On What Terms?", the report found that 10 out of the 12 Canadian university-industry partnerships reviewed violate standards for academic integrity.

I believe that scientists have a responsibility to defend the integrity of their field. I believe they should take action to ensure that universities, research institutions and scientific associations establish and enforce clear conflict of interest requirements. 

Epi Monitor:  Do you believe scientists can work ethically and productively for industry? If not, why not?

Ruff: Yes, indeed.

Epi Monitor:  What suggestions do you have for remedies for potential conflicts of interest since it is not practical to sever all relationships between scientists and industry, nor would we want to discourage good scientists from doing good science in the private sector.

Ruff: The examples of Buffler and Boffetta are ones in which scientists, who have worked in the field of public health for many years and have won trust and respect, betray that trust and respect by accepting industry financing and then coming up with scientifically flawed and biased findings that serve the industry’s interests.

I  believe it would be preferable for research into public health issues to be financed by public funds, not by industries, who usually have a vested interest in the outcome of the research.

As Dr. Allan M. Brandt reported in his paper, Inventing Conflicts of Interest: A History of Tobacco Industry Tactics, “the steps the industry took as it fashioned a new relationship with the scientific enterprise have become a powerful and influential model for the exertion of commercial interests within science and medicine since that time. As a result, industrial influence on scientific research and outcome has been a powerful legacy of the tobacco story.”[1]

I do not have enough information to be able to comment on the role played by scientists who work internally for the private sector.

[1] Brandt, Allan M., (2012), American Journal of Public Health, Vol 102, No. 1 , Consequences of Industry Relationships, p. 63  

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