Breakthrough Against Mercenary Science?

December, 2017

Washington -- The U.S. Senate's refusal to confirm the appointment of Michael Dourson to a post regulating the chemical industry could be a milestone in the effort to deal with mercenary science in academia. Senators on both sides of the aisle could not abide his academic research papers, riddled with conflicts of interest. Much of his research was funded by companies like Monsanto, DowAgroScience, ConAgra, Cargill, and many food processing companies. His research was published in a supposedly peer-reviewed journal, but that journal's credibility has also been in doubt.

TERA was the research center through which much of this activity was funded. It is located at the University of Cincinnati, where Michael Dourson was a professor. Dourson's work is displayed on a university web page. The University of Cincinnati is a public research institution.

One of the most serious problems with Dourson's appointment was his practice of submitting research papers to the industy that paid for them, to allow the industry to review and edit them before they went to a journal for publication.

This is not how academic science is supposed to work. There are theoretically stiff penalties for mercenary science. We'll see what, if anything, happens in this case. Will academe clean house, or have the forces behind mercenary science become so powerful that even universities may not challenge them?

It is not as if this is just an academic dispute. The agricultural chemicals in question are known to cause severe health problems in male agricultural workers; some are sources of groundwater contamination affecting children's brain development.

This is not a new topic for this blog. At my own alma mater, questions about the safety of a herbicide were once inappropriately referred to the manufacturer, Bayer Crop Science. The "Nebguide" in question is no longer posted; I hope my complaint in 2013 had something to do with it being taken down.

Meanwhile, the House Agriculture Committee has posted a new, slick video about the 2018 Farm Bill. It says the bill is all about sustainability in farming and good nutrition, feel-good topics offered to mislead and distract the viewer from the reality of the bill. The House bill is unfortunately more of the same bad policy that has been de-populating rural America for years and has taken a huge toll on Americans' health. The House bill is also oblivious to the mercenary science that has been a part of the problem underlying bad policy. Perhaps the Senate bill can do better by restoring agricultural research* to universities that do legitimate science, presuming some are still in existence.

* Two issues need urgent, legitimate research, which can be funded in the Farm Bill. One is profoundly frightening, the other potentially a save-the-planet hope. The first is the threat of our food becoming less nutritious as CO2 levels rise. The second is the hope that improving soil health can be a carbon sink like no other previously considered strategy to slow or stop the bad effects of climate change.