[Marxism] Scientists Loved and Loathed,by an Agrochemical Giant

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 2 07:56:09 MST 2017


NY Times, Jan. 2 2017
Scientists Loved and Loathed
by an Agrochemical Giant
With corporate funding of research, “There’s
no scientist who comes out of this unscathed.”
By DANNY HAKIM

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.

Confidentiality agreements have become routine. The United States 
Department of Agriculture turned over 43 confidentiality agreements 
reached with Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto since the beginning of 2010 
after a Freedom of Information Act request. Agroscope turned over an 
additional five with Swiss agrochemical companies.

Many of the agreements highlight how regulators are often more like 
collaborators than watchdogs, exploring joint research and patent deals 
that they agree to keep secret.

One agreement between the U.S.D.A. and Syngenta, which came with a 
five-year nondisclosure term, covered things including “research and 
development activities,” “manufacturing processes” and “financial and 
marketing information related to crop protection and seed technologies.” 
In another agreement, a government scientist was barred even from 
disclosing sensitive information she heard at a symposium run by Monsanto.

The Agriculture Department, in a statement, said that without such 
agreements and partnerships, “many technological solutions would not 
make it to the public,” adding that research findings were released 
“objectively without inappropriate influence from internal or external 
partners.”

Luke Gibbs, a spokesman for Syngenta, which is now being acquired by the 
China National Chemical Corporation, said in a statement, “We are proud 
of the collaborations and partnerships we have built.”

“All researchers we partner with are free to express their views 
publicly in regard to our products and approaches,” he said. “Syngenta 
does not pressure academics to draw conclusions and allows unfettered 
and independent submission of any papers generated from commissioned 
research.”

A look at the experiences of the three scientists — Dr. Cresswell, Dr. 
Simpkins and Dr. Hilbeck — reveals the ways agrochemical companies shape 
scientific thought.

A Reluctant Partner

For James Cresswell, taking money from Syngenta was not an easy decision.

Dr. Cresswell has been a researcher at the University of Exeter, in 
England’s southwest, for a quarter-century, mostly exploring the 
esoterica of flower reproduction in papers with titles like “Conifer 
ovulate cones accumulate pollen principally by simple impaction.” He was 
not used to making headlines.

But about a half-decade ago, he became interested in the debate over 
neonicotinoids, a class of pesticide derived from nicotine, and their 
effects on bee health. Many studies linked the chemicals to a mysterious 
collapse of bee colonies that was in the news. Other studies, many 
backed by industry, pointed to the varroa mite, and some saw both 
factors at play.

Dr. Cresswell’s initial research led him to believe that concerns about 
the pesticides were overblown. In 2012, Syngenta offered to fund further 
research.

While many academics resisted efforts by The Times to examine their 
communications with Syngenta, Dr. Cresswell did not challenge a records 
request submitted to his university. And he spoke with candor.

“The last thing I wanted to do was get in bed with Syngenta,” Dr. 
Cresswell said. “I’m no fan of intensive agriculture.”

But turning away research funding is difficult. The British government 
ranks universities on how useful their work is to industry and society, 
tying government grants to their assessments.

“I was pressured enormously by my university to take that money,” he 
said. “It’s like being a traveling salesman and having the best possible 
sales market and telling your boss, ‘I’m not going to sell there.’ You 
can’t really do that.”

The issue soon came up at Dr. Cresswell’s dinner table.

“Me and my mum were like, ‘Oh, you’re taking money,’” his daughter Fay, 
now a 21-year-old university student, recalled of the conversation that 
took place. “We didn’t have an argument, but it did get quite heated. We 
just said, ‘Don’t.’”

Duncan Sandes, a spokesman for Exeter, declined to discuss specific 
research grants. He said in a statement that up to 15 percent of 
university research in Britain was funded by industry. “Industry 
sponsors are fundamentally aware that they will receive independent 
analysis that has been critically evaluated in an honest and 
dispassionate manner,” Mr. Sandes said.

But the degree of independence is in question.

Dr. Cresswell and Syngenta agreed on a list of eight potential causes of 
bee deaths to be studied. They discussed how to structure grant 
payments. They reviewed research assistant candidates. Dr. Cresswell 
sought permission from Syngenta to pursue new insights he gained, asking 
at one point, “Please can you confirm that you are happy with the 
direction our current work is taking?”

But he also pushed back at times. An email from Syngenta to the 
university said that Dr. Cresswell “will have final editorial control,” 
but Dr. Cresswell, in another email, expressed concern that a proposed 
confidentiality clause “grants Syngenta the right to suppress the 
results,” adding, “I am not happy to work under a gagging clause.” He 
says the term of the clause was reduced to only a few months.

Neonicotinoids are now subject to a moratorium in the European Union. A 
recent study by Britain’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology attributed a 
population loss of at least 20 percent of many kinds of wild bees to the 
pesticides.

Syngenta and its competitors argue that the real culprit is a disease 
called varroosis, which is spread by varroa mites. The Bayer Bee Care 
Center in Germany includes menacing sculptures of the little pest.

But Dr. Cresswell’s initial research for Syngenta did not support the 
varroosis claims. “We are finding it pretty unlikely that varoosis is 
responsible for honey bee declines,” he wrote to Syngenta in 2012.

An executive wrote back, suggesting that Dr. Cresswell look more 
narrowly at “loss data” of beehives rather than at broader bee stock 
trends, “As this may give a different answer!”

For the next several weeks, the company repeatedly asked Dr. Cresswell 
to refocus his examination to look at varroa. In another email, the 
executive told Dr. Cresswell, “it would also be good to also look at 
varroa as a potential uptick factor” in specific countries where it 
could have exacerbated bee losses.

In the same email, part of a chain with the subject line “Varoosis 
report,” he also asked Dr. Cresswell to look at changes in Europe, 
rather than worldwide. Dr. Cresswell agreed and said, “I have some other 
angles to look at the varoosis issue further.”

By changing parameters, varroa mites did become a significant factor. 
“We’re coming to the view that varoosis is potent regarding colony loss 
at widespread scale,” Dr. Cresswell wrote in January 2013. A later email 
included scoring that bore that out.

Mr. Gibbs of Syngenta said, “We discussed and defined the direction of 
the research in partnership with the researcher with the aim of ensuring 
that it was focused and relevant.” He added, “We did not undermine Dr. 
Cresswell’s independence, dictate his approach to assessing the eight 
factors agreed upon with him, or restrict any of the conclusions he 
subsequently drew.”

That said, Syngenta was a client and Dr. Cresswell was providing a 
service. Looking back, Dr. Cresswell said that while he still thought 
concerns about the pesticides were overblown, aspects of his project 
were inevitably influenced by the nature of the relationship.

“You can write it up as, Syngenta had an effect on me,” he said. “I 
can’t actually deny that they didn’t. It wasn’t conniving on my part, 
but absolutely they influenced what I ended up doing on the project.”

For Dr. Cresswell, the affiliation with Syngenta became a burden. 
Environmentalists saw him as an adversary, and his industry connection 
came to define him in newsarticles. When he was called to testify before 
Parliament, Dave Goulson, a biology professor at the University of 
Sussex, sat next to him. Dr. Goulson likened taking money from 
agrochemical companies to taking money from the tobacco industry, which 
long denied that cigarettes were addictive.

Some people thrive on controversy. Dr. Cresswell does not.

“It hurt me more than I was willing to admit at the time,” he said. 
“Everything happened so fast.”

He had a breakdown. He said that he began to feel “I was virtually 
incompetent,” adding that he would put his head on his desk and think 
his work was a mess. He ended up leaving his job for several months. 
Although he presented his research publicly, it was never published.

In an interview, Dr. Goulson said, “I’ve known James for a very long 
time and always thought he was a good guy.

“You can’t win,” Dr. Goulson added. “If you are funded by industry, 
people are suspicious of your research. If you’re not funded, you’re 
accused of being a tree-hugging greenie activist. There’s no scientist 
who comes out of this unscathed.”

Today, Dr. Cresswell has returned to less controversial areas of bee 
research. He says he respects scientists he has met from Syngenta, but 
views collaboration with industry as a Faustian bargain.

He called Syngenta “a kind of devil.”

“What I didn’t realize is that supping with them would actually have a 
broader impact on how the world sees me as a scientist,” he said. “That 
was my misjudgment.”

A Tangled Relationship

If some scientists struggle to reconcile themselves with taking 
corporate money, others embrace complex business relationships.

James W. Simpkins, a professor at West Virginia University and the 
director of its Center for Basic and Translational Stroke Research, is 
one of many outside academics whom Syngenta turns to for research.

He has focused on the Syngenta product atrazine — the second most 
popular weed killer in America, widely used on lawns and crops — often 
co-authoring research with Syngenta scientists.

Atrazine, banned in the European Union, has also been controversial in 
America. Most notably, Syngenta started a campaign to discredit Tyrone 
B. Hayes, a professor it once funded at the University of California, 
Berkeley, when Dr. Hayes found that atrazine changes the sex of frogs.

Dr. Simpkins has had a different relationship with the company. In 2003, 
he appeared before American regulators on Syngenta’s behalf, saying that 
“we can identify no biologically plausible mechanism by which atrazine 
leads to an increase in prostate cancer.”

Dr. Simpkins was also lead author of a 2011 study finding no support 
that atrazine causes breast cancer. And last year, he was part of a 
small team of Syngenta-backed scientists that fought California’s move 
to require that atrazine be sold with a warning label. He also recently 
edited a series of papers on atrazine for Syngenta, garnering praise 
from a senior researcher at the company, Charles Breckenridge, who wrote 
in an email that the “papers tell a simple, yet compelling story.”

The depth of the financial intertwining of Dr. Simpkins and Syngenta was 
laid out in nearly 2,000 pages of email traffic, obtained by The Times 
after a Freedom of Information Act request. Not only does Dr. Simpkins 
receive research grants, but the company also pays him $250 an hour as a 
consultant for his work on expert panels, studies and manuscripts, 
records show. Syngenta even asked Dr. Simpkins to contribute to Dr. 
Breckenridge’s annual performance review.

Asking outsiders to contribute to corporate reviews is not unusual. 
However, Dr. Simpkins is also described in the emails as a partner in a 
venture set up by Dr. Breckenridge called Quality Scientific Solutions 
to consult on pesticides and other issues.

West Virginia University’s website says that “research conducted at 
W.V.U. is data-driven, objective and independent” and “not influenced by 
any political agenda, business priority” or “funding source.” And John 
A. Bolt, a university spokesman, said that all of Dr. Simpkins’s 
Syngenta-related research had been conducted before Dr. Simpkins arrived 
at West Virginia in 2012.

But a review of Dr. Simpkins’s published work shows that he wrote 
favorable atrazine studies with Syngenta scientists in 2014 and 2015, 
and listed his university affiliation. Mr. Bolt said Dr. Simpkins only 
“served as an expert adviser” in the studies.

In 2014, Syngenta made a $30,000 donation to the university’s 
foundation. Mr. Bolt said that the donation was made “in general support 
of the research activities of Dr. James W. Simpkins.” None of the money, 
Mr. Bolt said, was “used to support research related to Syngenta.”

Dr. Simpkins’s collaborations with Dr. Breckenridge appear to be 
expansive. In an email to Dr. Simpkins last year, Dr. Breckenridge sent 
him a study on the Mediterranean Diet and suggested that they use a 
multilevel marketing company to help them sell a product of their own.

“If we could come up with a better Snake Oil,” he wrote to Dr. Simpkins, 
“we would have access to a massive marketing force.”

A Critic and a Target

Some scientists labor outside the industry. It can be a difficult path.

Angelika Hilbeck worked for Agroscope, a Swiss agricultural research 
center, in the 1990s, when she began to examine genetically modified 
corn. The corn was engineered to kill insect larvae that fed on it, but 
Dr. Hilbeck found that it was also toxic to an insect called the 
lacewing, a useful bug that eats other pests.

Ciba-Geigy, a predecessor of Syngenta, had a confidentiality agreement 
with Agroscope, and insisted that she keep the research secret, she 
said. Confidentiality agreements are not unusual for Agroscope. In one 
such agreement obtained by The Times, the agency agreed to return or 
destroy corporate documents it received as part of a research project.

Dr. Hilbeck said she refused to back down and eventually published her 
work. Her contract at Agroscope was not renewed. An Agroscope 
spokeswoman said the episode took place too long ago to comment on.

Dr. Hilbeck continued as a university researcher and was succeeded at 
Agroscope by Jörg Romeis, a scientist who had worked at Bayer and has 
since co-authored research with employees from Syngenta, DuPont and 
other companies. He has spent much of his career trying to debunk Dr. 
Hilbeck’s work. He followed her lacewing studies by co-authoring his 
own, finding that genetically modified crops were not harmful to the 
lacewing.

Next, after Dr. Hilbeck co-wrote a paper outlining a model for assessing 
the unintended risks of such crops, Dr. Romeis was lead author of an 
alternative approach with a Syngenta scientist among his co-authors.

Then, in 2009, Dr. Hilbeck was an author of a paper looking at risks to 
ladybug larvae from modified crops. Dr. Romeis followed by co-authoring 
a study that found “no adverse effects” to ladybug larvae. In subsequent 
publications, he referred to work by Dr. Hilbeck and others as “bad 
science” and a “myth.”

“They were my little stalkers,” Dr. Hilbeck said. “Whatever I did, they 
did.”

In an interview, Dr. Romeis, who now leads Agroscope’s biosafety 
research group, said, “Her work does not affect our mission in any way,” 
adding that the idea of researching the effects of genetically modified 
crops was “not patented by her.”

Refereeing a scientific dispute is difficult. But Dr. Romeis and his 
collaborators do seem preoccupied with Dr. Hilbeck’s work, judging from 
a review of email traffic between Agroscope and the U.S.D.A. obtained by 
The Times after a Freedom of Information Act request.

In 2014, as Dr. Romeis was developing a paper assailing Dr. Hilbeck’s 
work, one U.S.D.A. scientist, Steven E. Naranjo, joked in a message to 
Dr. Romeis: “Joerg, its generous of you to see that Hilbeck gets 
published once in a while :)”

Dr. Hilbeck is used to looking over her shoulder. “We shouldn’t be 
running into all kinds of obstacles and face all this comprehensive 
mobbing just doing what we’re supposed to do,” she said. “It’s totally 
corrupted this field.”


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