Keeping The Science Moving Forward, Rather Than Sideways or Backwards

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James Cresswell, a professor at the University of Exeter in England, has turned to less controversial areas of research on bees. Here, a bee is mounted on a wire in a wind tunnel, for research designed to estimate normal bee density. CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

It is a bit of a mystery story, worthy of the time if you care about bees (a minor character here) and especially if you care about the moral character of scientists while under pressure:

Scientists Loved and Loathed by an Agrochemical Giant

With corporate funding of research, “There’s no scientist who comes out of this unscathed.”

By

EXETER, England — The bee findings were not what Syngenta expected to hear.

The pesticide giant had commissioned James Cresswell, an expert in flowers and bees at the University of Exeter in England, to study why many of the world’s bee colonies were dying. Companies like Syngenta have long blamed a tiny bug called a varroa mite, rather than their own pesticides, for the bee decline.

Dr. Cresswell has also been skeptical of concerns raised about those pesticides, and even the extent of bee deaths. But his initial research in 2012 undercut concerns about varroa mites as well. So the company, based in Switzerland, began pressing him to consider new data and a different approach.

Looking back at his interactions with the company, Dr. Cresswell said in a recent interview that “Syngenta clearly has got an agenda.” In an email, he summed up that agenda: “It’s the varroa, stupid.”

For Dr. Cresswell, 54, the foray into corporate-backed research threw him into personal crisis. Some of his colleagues ostracized him. He found his principles tested. Even his wife and children had their doubts.

“They couldn’t believe I took the money,” he said of his family. “They imagined there was going to be an awful lot of pressure and thought I sold out.”

The corporate use of academia has been documented in fields like soft drinks and pharmaceuticals. But it is rare for an academic to provide an insider’s view of the relationships being forged with corporations, and the expectations that accompany them.

A review of Syngenta’s strategy shows that Dr. Cresswell’s experience fits in with practices used by American competitors like Monsanto and across the agrochemical industry. Scientists deliver outcomes favorable to companies, while university research departments court corporate support. Universities and regulators sacrifice full autonomy by signing confidentiality agreements. And academics sometimes double as paid consultants.

In Britain, Syngenta has built a network of academics and regulators, even recruiting the leading government scientist on the bee issue. In the United States, Syngenta pays academics like James W. Simpkins of West Virginia University, whose work has helped validate the safety of its products. Not only has Dr. Simpkins’s research been funded by Syngenta, he is also a $250-an-hour consultant for the company. And he teamed up with a Syngenta executive in a consulting venture, emails obtained by The New York Times show.

Dr. Simpkins did not comment. A spokesman for West Virginia University said his consulting work “was based on his 42 years of experience with reproductive neuroendocrinology.”

Scientists who cross agrochemical companies can find themselves at odds with the industry for years. One such scientist is Angelika Hilbeck, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The industry has long since challenged her research, and she has been outspoken in challenging them back.

Going back to the 1990s, her research has found that genetically modified corn — intended to kill bugs that eat the plant — could harm beneficial insects as well. Back then, Syngenta had not yet been formed, but she said one of its predecessor companies, Ciba-Geigy, tried to stifle her research by citing a confidentiality agreement signed by her employer then, a Swiss government research center called Agroscope…

Read the whole story here.

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