Feds Drop Conflicted Contractor

By David Michaels

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) has fired Sciences International. Last month, Marla Cone wrote in the Los Angeles Times about allegations that the consulting firm, hired by the NTP to run the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR), had significant conflict of interest. The allegation was that Sciences International also worked for manufacturers of Bisphenol A, or BPA, a controversial endocrine-disrupting chemical that CECHR was evaluating. (Jennifer Sass and Sarah Janssen of the Natural Resources Defense Council have post on the BPA evaluation here).

Now, Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post reports that

At the same time it has been advising the federal government, Sciences International has been on the payroll of Dow Chemical, BASF, 3M and other companies that produce some of the chemicals under scrutiny.

The government took action after questions were raised by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. The group complained that Science International was reviewing bisphenol A, a chemical widely used in plastic that has been found to cause cancer and reproductive damage in animals. Dow Chemical and BASF, two manufacturers of bisphenol A, have been among Science International’s clients.

Richard Wiles, the group’s executive director, said the potential conflict of interested points to a larger problem of the federal government delegating too much authority to private contractors.

“Protecting the public health is one of those jobs that can’t be farmed out to contractors who have huge conflicts of interest with polluters and chemical makers,” he said.

At The Pump Handle, we’ve been following the issue very closely. After our initial post reporting the allegations as fact, I apologized to Sciences International, because the consulting firm denied the allegations and pointed out that they were operating under new management.

One issue here is the way that questions about conflicts on interest undermine public confidence in the quality and credibility of government science. And this is exactly what has happened here.

Herman Gibb, the company’s president, could not be reached for comment yesterday. In a March 19 letter to the NIH, he acknowledged three cases in which Sciences International was working for the chemical companies at the same time it was reviewing their chemicals for the federal government. But he said the company reviewed its work and concluded that “no conflicts existed that impaired judgments or objectivity in any of the tasks performed.”

That did not convince federal officials. “We still have some concerns about conflict of interest,” said Allen Dearry of the NIH, which terminated the contract after interviewing company employees and examining corporate client records.

From fighting the war in Iraq to collecting taxes, there does not seen to be an activity or responsibility the federal government is not willing to contract out. For many years, the government has used private contractors to conduct scientific reviews that federal scientists could do. Perhaps this is sometimes necessary, but there is far too much of it. But if we must use contractors, the government needs to ensure it gets the best, unconflicted science. Requiring full conflict of interest disclosure is a necessary first step in getting there.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.Header image

Comments

  1. #1 CERHR BPA Expert Panel Members
    April 16, 2007

    We are members of the Bisphenol A Expert Panel of the National Institutes of Health, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR). CERHR reviews reproductive and developmental toxicity for chemicals of public concern. Recently, concerns were raised regarding the influence of contractors used by CERHR to aid the Expert Panel. We believe that independent review is the cornerstone of good science and we are proud to use our scientific expertise in the service of public health. Expert Panel members are charged to review available data and render an unbiased and scientifically rigorous opinion. We guard our objectivity, independently evaluate the literature, and work together to reach consensus. Scientific integrity is our most valued possession, and we wish to reassure the public that this process has not been, and will not be, prejudiced by outside influences. Simply said, our final product will be based upon the highest quality science.
    Bisphenol A Expert Panel

    Robert E. Chapin, Ph.D (Chair)
    Jane Adams, Ph.D.
    Kim Boekelheide, M.D., Ph.D
    Leon E. Gray, Ph.D
    Simon W. Hayward, Ph.D
    Peter S.J. Lees, Ph.D
    Barry S. McIntyre, Ph.D
    Kenneth Portier, Ph.D
    Sherry G. Selevan, Ph.D
    John G. Vandenbergh, Ph.D.
    Susan R. Woskie, Ph.D.

  2. #2 David Michaels
    April 16, 2007

    I’d like to thank this panel for their comment and their commitment. Federal agencies and the public place a great deal of trust in the expert advisory process, and we are fortunate that independent scientists are willing to devote their time and considerable expertise to this work.

  3. #3 L Earl Gray Jr
    April 17, 2007

    The following comment was sent in an email to Lyndsey Layton about the BPA article in todays Washington Post. It incorrectly suggests that SI was responsible for reviewing the BPA studies. This was soley the responsibility of the Expert Panel.

    Letter to Wash Post
    Letter to Washington Post Lyndsey Layton
    One comment on your article today about BPA. You stated SI was reviewing 500 articles when they were fired. This does not accurately reflect the role SI was playing in the review process. At the time of the first BPA meeting SI was not in the room when the Expert Panel was reviewing the studies in the report. Members of the Expert Panel recently finished the first review of all of the BPA studies relating to the reproductive or developmental effects of this chemical. Neither SI nor CERHR staff were present during the review by Panel members and the papers were evaluated according to rigororus scientific criteria developed soley by the Panel. The Panel also rewrote summaries of each article, as warranted by the panel.
    The Panel also rewrote the limitations and strengths and utility sections for each article since this is the first time we had a chance to meet altogether and come to a consensus. The Panel will rereview our utility sections for key papers and then a summary will be prepared. The summary will be based only upon the high quality studies identified by the Panel.
    This report is the independent work of the BPA Expert Panel and is not influenced by either SI or CERHR staff. The current draft of our report, with the changes from previous documents shown, is scheduled to be put online later this week by CERHR.

    The following is the statement from the BPA Expert Panel about the process.
    We are members of the Bisphenol A Expert Panel of the National Institutes of Health, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR). CERHR reviews reproductive and developmental toxicity for chemicals of public concern. Recently, concerns were raised regarding the influence of contractors used by CERHR to aid the Expert Panel. We believe that independent review is the cornerstone of good science and we are proud to use our scientific expertise in the service of public health. Expert Panel members are charged to review available data and render an unbiased and scientifically rigorous opinion. We guard our objectivity, independently evaluate the literature, and work together to reach consensus. Scientific integrity is our most valued possession, and we wish to reassure the public that this process has not been, and will not be, prejudiced by outside influences. Simply said, our final product will be based upon the highest quality science.
    Bisphenol A Expert Panel
    Robert E. Chapin, Ph.D (Chair)
    Jane Adams, Ph.D.
    Kim Boekelheide, M.D., Ph.D
    Leon E. Gray, Ph.D
    Simon W. Hayward, Ph.D
    Peter S.J. Lees, Ph.D
    Barry S. McIntyre, Ph.D
    Kenneth Portier, Ph.D
    Sherry G. Selevan, Ph.D
    John G. Vandenbergh, Ph.D.
    Susan R. Woskie, Ph.D.