Peering Into Peer Review on Atrazine – industry studies are often better and more transparent

In a recent blog, I outlined some of the big money behind the activist assault on modern agricultural technology, particularly the safe and effective herbicide, atrazine. Much of that money probably flows directly from trial lawyers through activist “laundering” operations such as the Tides Foundation (specifically set up so that the billions they distribute to activists can’t be traced to its source).

I suggested that reporters, if they really want to fulfill their watchdog function, maybe ask some of these activists where their funding comes from.

This is particularly important, as the activist campaign against atrazine is based largely on discrediting the “industry based” science on which regulatory approval has been at least partially based.

So here I suggest some additional questions reporters should never fail to ask scientists who put out these flimsy studies on atrazine:  Can you please name all the sources that funded your study?  And if you won’t, why not?

Industry Funded Vs. Peer Review

The NRDC’s whole case against atrazine rests on their argument that to get a true scientific appraisal of a chemical and its health effects, one must survey the literature of peer-reviewed studies not funded by industry.  Before this gold standard, industry-funded studies are dismissed as so much deceptive PR.

This trope not only permeates the promotional literature of activist organizations.  It has also begun to effect the way in which the press and journals approach studies.  In 2005, The Journal of the American Medical Association announced a new policy of refusing to publish industry-sponsored research unless there was at least one other author with no ties to the industry who would formally vouch for the data.  Since then, journalists have tended use the phrase “industry-funded” in a dismissive fashion, while uncritically touting the often sensational findings of peer-reviewed studies whose funders are often unknown.

Full Disclosure?

“Why are journalists and ethics boards so quick to assume that money, particularly corporate money, is the first factor to look at when evaluating someone’s work?” asks John Tierney of The New York Times.  “One reason is laziness.  It is simpler to note a corporate connection than to analyze all the other factors that can bias researchers’ work: their background and ideology, their yearnings for publicity and prestige and power, the politics of their profession, the agendas of the public agencies and foundations and grant committees that finance so much scientific work.”

By comparison, the typical peer-reviewed study undergoes no such audit.

“Keep in mind that peer review is a volunteer enterprise,” writes Janet Raloff in Science News writes:  “No one gets paid.  So there is little incentive for a reviewer to spend weeks or more anonymously ferreting out potential errors from a gargantuan manuscript.”

In fact, there is every reason to believe that industry-funded studies are superior to those not financed by industry.  Tierney reports [http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/30/misleading-research-from-industry/] that a study funded by the National Institute of Health found that the industry-sponsored clinical trials met significantly higher standards than the non-industry ones.

Also lost in the discussion is that industry-funded studies are mandated by law.  For atrazine, some studies have cost more than $12 million.  They are designed under the guidance of the EPA.  They are stringently audited by EPA.   In contrast, many of the studies that are regularly cited by the NRDC have been either rejected as seriously flawed by the EPA, or are bigger-than-a-breadbox “ecological” studies in which atrazine itself was not included.

“It’s naïve to caricature scientific disputes as battles between ‘industry’ and the ‘public interest,’ as if bureaucrats and activists didn’t have their own selfish interests (and wealthy, powerful allies like trial lawyers),” writes Tierney.  “Too often, corporate conflict-of-interest accusations have been used as smear tactics to silence scientists who ended up being correct.”

Tierney offers a suggestion that scientists list all their public and private donors on their Web pages, allowing journalists and readers to decide for themselves which ones are potentially corrupting.

If the default assumption is that money is the root of all evil, then transparency should be the price of being taken seriously by journalists and policymakers.

About Alex Avery

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