By David Michaels
Product Defense is a lucrative business. The scientists who own and operate these firms make sizable profits helping polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products stymie public health and environmental regulators. The companies, and the scientists, sell not just their scientific expertise, but their knowledge of and access to regulatory agencies. Hire me, they say, because I can get the results you want. I used to work at EPA, or OSHA, or FDA — I know how they operate, and besides, the folks at the agency will always answer my phone calls. This is mercenary science.
Should scientists whose financial success depends on influencing agency policy be appointed to Advisory Committees that help the agency set policy? It is clear to me the answer should be no.
Right now, EPA is considering a “short list” of nominations to serve on its Science Advisory Board Asbestos Panel. Earlier this month, three of the scientists on the short list, each with his own consulting firm, appeared on behalf of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association at a public meeting to discuss NIOSH’s future asbestos research. The EPA is considering whether to appoint these same scientists to the advisory panel, even though they are being paid by a trade association to influence the asbestos work of another federal agency.
Appointing a product defense scientist to an advisory panel is like appointing a member of the defendant’s legal team to a jury deciding that defendant’s guilt or innocence.
This is just a piece of a larger discussion on whether scientists with any conflict of interest should serve on advisory panels. The FDA has announced that scientists who serve on their advisory panels must have only minimal financial connections with drug manufacturers. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has also banned scientists with any financial conflict from membership on its famous monograph panels.
Bill at Enviroblog has a post up on one of the scientists nominated to the EPA asbestos panel: Dennis Paustenbach of the product defense firm ChemRisk. Bill thinks he shouldn’t be allowed on the panel:
The EPA says members of the Asbestos Panel should display “absence of financial conflicts of interest” and “absence of an appearance of a lack of impartiality.” Last year, in an investigation of auto industry lobbying against federal rules on asbestos brakes, the Baltimore Sun found documents showing that ChemRisk and Paustenbach’s previous firm, Exponent, were paid more than $23 million by Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler to help fight asbestos lawsuits by former workers. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has documented more than two dozen other companies Paustenbach has worked for that have been sued over asbestos exposure.
And still more: At an asbestos industry conference last year, Paustenbach delivered a 30-minute presentation that was a thinly veiled pitch for asbestos defendants to hire ChemRisk.
But, to me, the reason that product defense scientists like Dr. Paustenbach shouldn’t be on the panel is not simply because he does work in litigation. The EPA’s short list includes several scientists who have testified in court on behalf of plaintiffs and/or defendants in asbestos disease suits. Many of these scientists have spent a lot of time studying asbestos, and it’s not surprising that they would appear in court to testify about one of their areas of expertise. Until EPA moves to moves to limit membership on panels by scientists with financial conflict of interest (as FDA and IARC have done), some of these scientists will likely be on EPA panels, and the agency needs to attempt to balance the panel’s membership.
But scientists associated with product defense firms have a very fundamental conflict of interest that runs very deep, and EPA should not tolerate it. Firms like ChemRisk and Exponent are hired by corporations and trade associations to minimize government regulation. (We’ve written about their work delaying regulations that would protect workers exposed to beryllium, chromium and other hazards.)
These scientists sit in meetings with their corporate clients, advising on the steps that are needed to stop EPA, or OSHA, or FDA from issuing strong standards. They are not paid to be scientists; they are paid to be mercenaries, promoting the needs of their clients over both science and the needs of the public.
One important step in ending corruption in science would be to ban employees of product defense firms from federal science advisory committees. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board Asbestos Panel is a good place to start. Email Vivian Turner (turner.vivian [at] epa [dot] gov) by May 24th (more details here) to say that scientists whose companies are in the business of helping polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products should not serve on the Asbestos Panel.
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.