Who paid for the study? That’s an important piece of information to have when considering a study’s methods and reported findings. Financial ties are the most obvious conflicts of interest, but others include pre-publication review and other requirements imposed by a study’s sponsors.
Scientists publishing papers in the leading biomedical journals have, for at least ten years, been providing readers with disclosures of real or potential conflicts. The editors of more than 1,300 medical journals require authors to comply with specific disclosure policies. Researchers from other disciplines, however, do not necessarily follow the same disclosure requirements.
Earlier this year, the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward, Jr. reported on studies that challenged the findings of public health researchers which found that mining operations may adversely affect a community’s health. He noted, however, that in the authors’ reports and presentations of their critiques, they were not transparent about who paid for the studies. A few of the papers offered an acknowledgement to “ARIES.” But my recollection is that some of these acknowledgements failed to let readers know that ARIES was an acronym. ARIES is the “Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES).” It took some of Ward’s own skillful digging to find out who funds ARIES. He learned and reported that the program’s initial funders, some of the biggies in the mining industry, included Alpha Natural Resources, International Coal Group, Massey Energy Co., TECO Coal, Patriot Coal and Norfolk Southern. (Following the Charleston Gazette’s April 2013 story, ARIES updated its website with a bit better disclosure.)
After reading parts of OSHA’s proposed rule to protect silica-exposed workers, my interest turned again to conflicts of interest and disclosure policies. OSHA published this proposal in September and is now seeking public comment on it.
On the very first page of the Federal Register notice, OSHA writes:
“If you submit scientific or technical studies or other results of scientific research, OSHA requests (but is not requiring) that you also provide the following information where it is available: (1) Identification of the funding source(s) and sponsoring organization(s) of the research; (2) the extent to which the research findings were reviewed by a potentially affected party prior to publication or submission to the docket, and identification of any such parties; and (3) the nature of any financial relationships (e.g., consulting agreements, expert witness support, or research funding) between investigators who conducted the research and any organization(s) or entities having an interest in the rulemaking.”
The agency’s notice continues:
“If you are submitting comments or testimony on the Agency’s scientific and technical analyses, OSHA requests that you disclose: (1) The nature of any financial relationships you may have with any organization(s) or entities having an interest in the rulemaking; and (2) the extent to which your comments or testimony were reviewed by an interested party prior to its submission. Disclosure of such information is intended to promote transparency and scientific integrity of data and technical information submitted to the record.”
This is the first time OSHA has made such a request of commenters to a proposed rule. I’m glad to see it.
Over the years, I’ve observed OSHA’s rulemaking efforts. It’s not unusual for a trade association or other interested group to submit reports or analyses that have not been published in the peer-reviewed literature. These documents are often prepared by individuals with lots of degrees and credentials after their names. Although it may be obvious that these experts are retained by a particular trade association, it’s not necessarily clear what companies paid for their work, and that information is rarely disclosed.
In this OSHA rulemaking, the agency is requesting disclosures on:
“the extent to which the research findings were reviewed by a potentially affected party prior to publication or submission to the docket, and identification of any such parties”
OSHA’s request for this information—but not requiring it—is a step in the right direction. Regulations to protect U.S. workers from serious and fatal injuries and illnesses are too important for this information not to be disclosed. Policy makers need to be able to consider all aspects of the evidence submitted in a rulemaking. This includes who paid for the evidence and their role, from start to finish, in it.
By making the request for these disclosures, an interesting chain of events may occur. Some commenters may not disclose the requested information. OSHA may decide not to press them on the matter. After all, OSHA says that it is asking for, but “not requiring” such disclosure. But OSHA’s public hearings are unique among federal regulatory agencies. OSHA allows those offering testimony to cross-examine others who are also testifying. I wouldn’t be surprised if disclosure requests are made during these cross examinations. Stay tuned. It could be quite interesting.
OSHA’s public hearings on the silica proposed rule are scheduled to begin on March 4, 2014.