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Defending Science from Industry Assaults

David Michaels Speaks at CAP Event

David Michaels explains at a CAP event the "tricks of the trade" used by corporations to delay regulation that would make Americans safer.

David Michaels, an epidemiologist and the director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington School of Public Health, speaks at CAP event about his new book, <i>Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health</i>. (CAP)
David Michaels, an epidemiologist and the director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington School of Public Health, speaks at CAP event about his new book, Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. (CAP)

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Interview with David Michaels on Doubt Is Their Product

Tobacco companies perfected the manufacture of scientific uncertainty, setting the example for numerous U.S. industries to follow. Realizing that studies demonstrating the fact that cigarettes cause cancer posed an immanent threat to their business model, tobacco executives hired public relations experts to attack the science behind the research. Their basic tactic, according to David Michaels, was to argue that the studies "weren’t correct enough." Despite the wide acceptance of the link between smoking and cancer in the scientific community and the public at large, the strategy worked, and the controversy over the carcinogens in cigarette smoke bought the industry decades of time to continue profiting off a deadly product.

Michaels, an epidemiologist and the director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington School of Public Health, is an expert on how U.S. industries have hired mercenary scientists to use the same tactics to create scientific controversy where it did not previously exist. He spoke today at the Center for American Progress about his new book, Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, which chronicles the "tricks of the trade" employed by scientists-for-hire to systematically delay government action to curb the health risks of asbestos, beryllium, pharmaceuticals, diacetyl (which causes “popcorn lung”), and man-made climate change.

Digging through the documents made public in the multistate settlements against the tobacco industry, Michaels noticed that Hill & Knowlton, the PR firm leading the charge against science on behalf of the cigarette makers, was not a single-issue uncertainty shop. Hill & Knowlton, Michaels discovered, reached out over the years to many industries that exposed workers or the public to dangerous chemicals. Among their clients was DuPont, and the firm boasted about their success fending off regulation long enough for the chemical giant to develop an alternative to the chlorofluorocarbons that were tearing a hole in the ozone layer.

"Most scientists who work for industry are honest," Michaels points out. Companies interested in delaying regulation will therefore hire consultants Michaels calls "sleazy." After the success of groups like Hill & Knowlton, these scientists got into the lucrative "product defense" industry (now referred to by the friendlier "product support" moniker). These firms, Michaels explains, use methods "similar to the accounting done by Arthur Anderson for Enron." They conduct "literature reviews" that include studies of good and poor quality, diluting the results of research identifying hazards to public health. They also take advantage of the uneven playing field by accessing and reanalyzing raw data from government studies. Aside from the Food and Drug Administration, which has access to raw data from drug makers’ clinical trials, most regulatory industries do not have access to the raw data from industry-funded studies. When corporations fight regulation with the results of industry-funded research, as well as with jerry-rigged reanalysises of government data that make health risks evaporate in statistical smoke, the public loses and industry profits.

But Michaels proposes a slate of reforms that can curb the manufacture of uncertainty and protect citizens and workers. He is a strong advocate for strict rules barring scientists with financial conflicts of interest from participating in government advisory panels, as they cannot be expected to provide unbiased interpretations of research. "We need transparency and full disclosure," he says, explaining that "the interpretation has to be done by scientists who don’t have a financial interest." With multibillion dollar issues like drug regulation at stake, and with public health a central question in industry regulation, Michaels argues that the government can afford to hire scientists without conflicts.

He also proposes a "Sarbanes-Oxley" for science—a legal framework similar to the one enacted after the accounting scandals that led to the fall of Enron. It would hold corporate executives responsible for the nefarious accounting that goes into product defense research for products that harm the public.

In addition, Michaels proposes equal treatment of public and private science: a level playing field that allows for bi-directional access to raw data. "Industry has the right to do its own studies," he says, "That’s important." But if the research will have an effect on public policy, data and methods have to be public information.

Ultimately, the key step to defending public health from underhanded industry tactics may be to follow the money. Prestigious medical journals, Michaels points out, require statements indicating who paid for a study, but smaller publications (sometimes set up by product defense firms themselves) and regulatory agencies don’t always have such rules. Scientists, journalists, and policy makers must always ask where the money comes from when there are controversies over research on public health. "Sunlight," in the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, "is said to be the best of disinfectants."

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Interview with David Michaels on Doubt Is Their Product