When scientists attack

A laurel to Environmental Health News for taking a hard look at the politics behind a controversial editorial

Spend extended time reading the science press, and it’s easy to think that science is a one-note story about the amazing discoveries that happen in test tubes and laboratories. In reality, there’s a plethora of under-covered science angles, most notably the politics of research funding and science policy.

That’s why Stéphane Horel and Brian Bienkowski deserve a laurel for an article released last month by Environmental Health News, investigating a group of scientists who authored a controversial editorial. The piece under scrutiny condemned a proposed regulatory policy for endocrine disruptors. Instead of rehashing the science with a tired ‘he said, she said’ model, the EHN reporters chronicled the scientists’ financial and political affiliations—weaving a comprehensive story of the influences behind science policy.

In June, the European Commission leaked a draft document proposing a regulation of endocrine disruptors—chemicals (most famously bisphenol A, known as BPA) commonly found in consumer products including food, fragrances, and plastics, that can impact hormone regulation and production. Though endocrine disruptors have been linked in laboratory studies to cancer and chronic disease, their effects on human health is still uncertain, and the draft document announced the European Union’s intention to be the first country to regulate them specifically.

In July, the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology published a scathing editorial, signed by 18 established scientists and journal editors, that critiqued the plan as based on a shoddy understanding of science.

“The currently drafted framework is based on virtually complete ignorance of all well-established and taught principles of pharmacology and toxicology,” wrote the scientists. “Regulations that profoundly affect human activities, that legally impose significant fines and even detention, should not be based on irrelevant tests forced to be forced to be regarded as relevant by administrative dictates.” If you take their argument to its logical conclusion, it’s beyond a policy critique; it’s a rallying cry. The authors are arguing that pharmaceutical policy, essentially, should be more influenced by the people who understand it best—the scientists. (The authors wrote a similar open letter to the EU’s chief science adviser, which was published in over a dozen other journals.)

But here’s the problem with that argument: One month later, a group of 41 scientists published “Science and policy on endocrine disruptors must not be mixed: a reply to a ‘common sense’ intervention by toxicology journal editors,” in Environmental Health, a journal unaffiliated with Environmental Health News. This piece picked apart the original editorial for misrepresenting the scientific consensus on endocrine disruptors. The 18 scientists’ view was “unfounded,” they wrote, “as it is neither based on the fundamental principles of how the endocrine system works and how chemicals can interfere with its normal function, nor does it consider the consequences of that interference.” The back-and-forth got bigger in August, with a group of 104 scientists publishing an additional critique of the first editorial in the journal Endocrinology.

It’s easy to get caught up in trying bring balance to this kind of argument—and most publications, like Nature covered the row in a straightforward back-and-forth. But Environmental Health News reporters dug through the backgrounds of the 18 original editorial writers, finding potential conflicts of interest with 17. (They’re published on a separate page: here.) The problematic affiliations range from slight (patents with the drug company Merck, which produces BPA) to the major (significant research funding from pharmaceutical companies, affiliations with the European Chemical Industry Council.)

“We do not believe the discussion on the conflicts of interests will serve anybody because it takes away the focus from the real issue,” Daniel Dietrich, the editorial’s lead author told Environmental Health News.

We beg to differ. As EHN points out, “the new rules would have sweeping, global ramifications because all companies that sell a variety of products in Europe would have to comply.” Having a piece of journalism that contextualizes the science behind the argument is a significant part of the real issue.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , ,