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Monsanto Was Its Own Ghostwriter for Some Safety Reviews (bloomberg.com)
300 points by Red_Tarsius 163 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments



You should realize how important money is in research today. The main job nowadays of principal investigators (PI) for research labs is to write applications for grants and fundings. These labs are usually underfunded and will accept any private funding if necessary. For example, the PI for my nutrition lab received funding from a Canadian agricultural company for a study on Canola oil. When the test results of the study were investigated (which I don't exactly recall), they were not in favour of Canola oil. The PI therefore "voluntarily" decided not to publish the results. I asked her why, and she said that if she published the results she would not be likely to ever receive funding from the company again.

My point is that a lot of research conducted today is funded by ulterior motives, be it political, private interest, or a company like Monsanto. I fully expected a company like Monsanto to be engaged in this behaviour. The days of pure/basic research are dead, especially with funding from the public sector drying up.

edit: oops i meant to write principal investigator (PI)


The PI therefore "voluntarily" decided not to publish the results. I asked her why, and she said that if she published the results she would not be likely to ever receive funding from the company again.

This isn't the first time I've heard of something like this, but holy shit. Those actions should produce a reaction of alarm and outrage, but I'm sure many of us read that and shake our heads, thinking "that's terrible" – but not being shocked at all.

In a situation like that, is there a feasible way to seek "justice"? Does the organization (I assume a university?) overseeing the research lab have a policy & procedures in place to handle anonymous reporting of that behavior?


It may be wrong to focus solely on my PI's ethics. This phenomenon is implicitly understood all throughout the research community, and by targeting her lab you wouldn't be really changing anything. Word would certainly get out that the lab is "uncooperative", and a company like Monsanto can simply call up the next struggling, underfunded lab who will be happy to comply and take the money.

The only way to get "justice" is if you change the market so that the researchers have power, and this can only happen if researchers have enough stability and money to pick and choose research as they please. If you give them enough money, you hope that they make the right and ethical decisions (similar to why judges are paid so much).


Why ? Parliament and lawyers aren't capable of running safety reviews, nor do they have the will or (it seems) the ability or budget to provide an organisation that can do it.

So who then writes safety reviews ? Well, the same as for medicine : the company gets them written. Ideally by a somewhat neutral third party, but since they're paid by the guys who want things approved there's going to be problems here. Since the taxpayer won't pay for them, they are by necessity paid by the company wanting something reviewed. Those guys want these things approved and are paying the bills.

This is very much working as intended. Want a better system ? It will be much more expensive, as you'll effectively have to hire medicine experts away from companies like Monsanto + provide them with infrastructure.


The reasonable thing to do is stop expecting companies to pay for results that hurt them, and support public funding for these investigations. Trying to punish a PI who is just trying not to put him or herself, plus the lab scientists and employees, out of a job is counterproductive.


"The days of pure/basic research are dead, especially with funding from the public sector drying up."

I take issue with that statement, there is still a lot of basic research done that is publicly funded or funded via organisations like the Wellcome trust. My wife is in cancer research and there is no way anyone can influence her results. I also know her colleagues and two of them are also members of the Royal Society, and same thing goes for them.

With regards to privately funded research and applied science, yeah i do agree that there are serious issues but I think it also depends on the regulatory environment. As a counterexample, look at the recent study done in Europe that showed that neonics did have some harmful effects on bees in the wild. The research was paid for by Bayer and Syngenta and those results where published (Although Bayer and Syngenta disagreed with the conclusions, as one would expect).

Forgot to say: I also agree with you that funding situation is still not great but we're not yet at the point where there is NO public funded research


> I asked her why, and she said that if she published the results she would not be likely to ever receive funding from the company again.

Yeah, this is why is absolutely paramount that we should push for all research studies[1] to be disclosed to the public before actually conducting the research. For example, in the medical realm see http://policyaudit.alltrials.net/

[1] Or, rather, not take studies that haven't been pre-disclosed seriously. I have very little hope that this type of policy will become pervasive enough for all types of study, but medical research affects human lives so there's at least a little hope that it will become a government-mandated requirement for drugs that need approval.


This just really doesn't make sense for a lot of research. Most science isn't this kind of "Does chemical X do Y?"- these kind of clinical trials and safety reviews are not really what most scientists are engaged in. There could be some centralized system (do you know that clinicaltrials.gov already exists and does this for pharmaceutical research?) for safety and efficacy experiments, but most science goes more like "let's figure out how the heck this thing works!" and are an investigation involving hundreds of constantly changing mini-experiments that'd be impossible and counterproductive to predict beforehand.


What is to ensure that a study which is being "pre-disclosed" has not, in fact, already had the data collected and simply being withheld for the same amount of time that it took to collect?


I agree with all of your points. Science costs money. Somehow, however, we've made incredible scientific progress over the last 650 years with Science and Industry tightly dependent on one another (Science on Industry to conduct new research, and Industry on Science to open up new possible products and markets).

Unless we change something we'll get Industry stifling new knowledge (as in your examples) and stagnating as a result of its own actions. All that said...somehow it's worked fairly well for centuries, so I'm reluctant to accept heinous actions like these as the status quo, even if corporations can usually be counted on to act in their own short-term best interests.


> we've made incredible scientific progress over the last 650 years with Science and Industry tightly dependent on one another

To be fair it hasn't all been rainbows and butterflies. There have been a lot of really bad problems caused by this unholy union. I'm not even sure it's net-better. The level of environmental destruction we've caused, combined with the difficulty of doing anything about said damage, could negate all of the benefits we've achieved.


I think you're vastly underestimating the role publicly funded science (and science conducted and funded by private individuals not primarily concerned with commercial benefits) has played in that advancement.


>The PI therefore "voluntarily" decided not to publish the results. I asked her why, and she said that if she published the results she would not be likely to ever receive funding from the company again.

That just sounds awful. Why must we privatize everything?


> The days of pure/basic research are dead, especially with funding from the public sector drying up.

I have been wondering, could pure research work well with a crowd-funding model? In addition to applying for a grant, the PI would post a similar or identical application to Kickstarter & co. Stretch goals could be used to commission media-rich presentations that are true to the research, rather than leaving the original scientist-oriented study to be interpreted by rushed journalists.


You can bet that industry-friendly stealth-subsidized projects will come in to displace genuinely truth-seeking projects in a crowdfunding model.

It would be more straightforward to condition public funding on publishing all results.


"PI" is principal investigator.


Any possibility of a functional fund pool that these labs all are able to pick at anonymously to conduct these type of reviews— of course these companies that require Safety Regulations put money into.


1 week ago:

"Monsanto leaks suggest it tried to ‘kill’ cancer research about weed killer (baumhedlundlaw.com"

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14923009


The actual "news" are IMHO only that this can proven as they have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

I often dream of some news like "Independent research actually found to be independent".


Interesting timing for me. I just yesterday read an Atlantic article titled "How America Lost Its Mind" [0].

The tldr; of that article is that Americans have had an increasing tendency to create our own realities and to believe anything we choose. This includes conspiracy theories like the government is purposely allowing cancer treatments to be withheld, as well as the idea that vaccines cause autism, etc. The article then goes on to suggest that choosing what to believe is part of being American. I don't necessarily agree, as I think the article was woefully inadequate in assessing the damage that financial interests play in willfully misleading people and creating a post-truth world.

Here on HN, I've had "debates" with people who nearly suggested that glyphosate is the greatest thing that ever happened to mankind. When I cautioned about safety concerns due to overuse, I got the standard pointer to the studies, etc. If you question the studies, then you find yourself being painted as some sort of anti-science conspiracy-theorist. This, when we essentially all know how research is done and the degree of rampant regulatory capture that exists.

I guess my point is that when many of the institutions we're supposed to trust are largely captured and firms that have direct financial incentive to mislead are allowed to decide what's real, then it is an assault on truth and reason. When we ignore this fact and encourage blind-belief in these institutions (worse, allowing them to act as proxies for "the ultimate truth of science"), then we are aiding in the creation of the very post-fact world we claim to abhor.

[0] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/how-ame...


http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10408444.2016.12...

> The Expert Panel Members recruitment and evaluation of the data was organized and conducted by Intertek Scientific & Regulatory Consultancy (Intertek). The Expert Panelists were engaged by, and acted as consultants to, Intertek, and were not directly contacted by the Monsanto Company. Funding for this evaluation was provided to Intertek by the Monsanto Company which is a primary producer of glyphosate and products containing this active ingredient. Neither any Monsanto company employees nor any attorneys reviewed any of the Expert Panel's manuscripts prior to submission to the journal.

Seems misleading.


What exactly is misleading? The next line explains further

> Monsanto’s internal emails tell a different story. The correspondence shows the company’s chief of regulatory science, William Heydens, and other Monsanto scientists were heavily involved in organizing, reviewing, and editing drafts submitted by the outside experts. At one point, Heydens even vetoed explicit requests by some of the panelists to tone down what one of them wrote was the review’s “inflammatory” criticisms of IARC.


It's worth bearing in mind, whatever the process failures here may have been, that IARC is not above criticism. Their assessment of glyphosate as a human carcinogen is not well established by the literature, and was made in passing in a report (which covered tens of other herbicides and pesticides) that the WHO, their parent organization, has effectively disavowed.

The same source made hay out of Monsanto's efforts to push back against a study trying to establish a link between cancer and glyphosate. They neglect to mention that the study was Séralini's, and that it was famously criticized and eventually retracted.


I think that's exactly the point that's missing in the thread. Monsanto has money, but nobody has a monopoly on science--scientific proof is reproducible. There is plenty of stuff funded by people against Monsanto's interests (including competing chemical companies). So while this certainly does raise some questions, it doesn't seem to change any conclusions. I tried to read this as though the issue was climate change and see what I thought. I don't think this changes the scientific consensus even if indicates need for better disclosure practices.


Ahh, sorry, yes. I was just pointing out what was actually written in declarations is different than what was reported by the bloomberg story.


"every company" was accidently misspelt as "Monsanto" in the title.

I'm not trying to jump to their defense, but can you think of a situation where the opposite would happen? Think about it, any company that funds research is going to be a subject area in their market.

Unless there was a specific ethical issue here, this isn't "news", this is a thorn in the side of the [otherwise wonderful] free market.


I don't know the legality of what they did, but it's pretty clearly a reason to favor government involvement in fringe cases like this. Sounds like what they did was fraud.


Yet again, American style Capitalism giving regular ole Capitalism a bad rep.


"Real capitalism wouldn't have these problems" is No True Scotsman in action.


Theres capitalism, and then theres this current incarnation of American style capitalism. Paid lobbyists (or in this case paid writers) creating laws (or in this case "research") that crush competition/rivals (which capitalism needs to thrive), = American capitalism, (as it currently stands).


so, where are the HN commentators who were defending monsanto left right and center during the recent safety debates?


Well, I just woke up. Monsanto has done something pretty screwy here as far as scientific ethics because people within the organisation were angry with the IARC. I can understand being angry with the IARC. Its decision was extremely stupid and a PR nightmare. Pretty dumb of Monsanto to fight stupidity with stupidity. They should know better.

On the other hand, the editing does appear to be cosmetic, with Monsanto wanting to skewer the IARC, and there are plenty of truly independent investigations into the effects of glyphosate. All of the science still says glyphosate is safe in the concentrations we encounter it in.

http://www.who.int/foodsafety/jmprsummary2016.pdf?ua=1


I don't really see anything wrong with using a ghostwriter, as long as the person/organisation whose name is on any document fully read and agreed with the contents, and would stand by them as their own.


Did you read the article? The concern is about Monsanto heavily editing what should've been unbiased independent research around the safety of roundup, yet releasing it as such. knowingly giving the general population carcinogens and fighting hard for it. Deplorable.


The saddest part is that there are real live people who willingly do this for a living. Nothing will ever change as long as this behavior is enabled or encouraged.


My question is there any residue on the crops when they come to market in the grocery store?


Well, I'm sure not all of it is in the drinking water downstream from the fields where it's over-applied beyond concentrations even Monsanto recommends. So it has to go somewhere. Still, a largely plant-based diet will help your health more than hurt it.

https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/health/natural-health/pe...

It and one of its degradates are found in the majority of drinking water or wastewater samples in some areas (different reports from different studies report 18% and 36% of samples undegraded, 68% and 69% of AMPA). It's typically far below what the EPA considers a safe level. That "safe level", of course, is set based on understanding the body of safety studies about it.

https://toxics.usgs.gov/highlights/glyphosate02.html

I grew up along a major river in the Midwest. I've been reading studies and study summaries about glyphosate for years. I'm less concerned, honestly, at the levels I see reported about it being a carcinogen than as a possible developmental neurotoxin and problem for reproduction.

https://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/pollutio...

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24636977

http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/roundup-weedkiller-brain-da...

It's also found to be potentially far more toxic as mixed in Roundup than in isolation.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/weed-whacking-her...

http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/glyphogen.html

Herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides, including the herbicide glyphosate, have been shown to potentially lead to gut microbe imbalances and other subtle biological changes like immune, endocrine, and neurological symptoms. Depression, autism, ADHD, diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, birth defects, miscarriage, and lupus are among the disorders other than cancers found to be strongly correlated with working in or living near agriculture.

http://chem-tox.com/agriculture/index.htm

Again, a largely plant-based diet will help your health more than hurt it. Be sure to wash your food and maybe have some of it organic.

I'd like more and better studies on these chemicals, but neonicotinoids seem to be a much bigger long-term threat than glyphosate.


Ghostwriting research into your own products is a colossal breach of corporate, academic, and ethical integrity.


If a regulator can't be arsed to bother writing the report themselves, what makes you think they are carefully reviewing the findings in the report before rubber stamping it? What makes you think there aren't errors of omission? Who is verifying what they write in the report is the truth?

This system would only work if the company in question was trustworthy enough to not need regulation in the first place. In the real world it will never work.


You don't see anything wrong with the company being it's own ghostwriter? The company, who is clearly going to agree with the contents that are charitable to itself?


I love Hacker News apologists.


This sort of personal attack will get your account banned here, regardless of how wrong someone else may be, so please don't do this again.

Someone holding a different view than you do is not evidence of bad faith, and the internet trope of you-must-be-a-shill is poison. Since you've posted like this before, it's important that you fix this and not do it again.

You've also been uncivil in other comments, and that needs to stop too. Here's how to approach HN commenting: if you have a substantive point to make, make it thoughtfully; otherwise please don't comment until you do.




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