This past weekend, The New York Times published a terrific longread on the tangled web that is industry-funded research; in the case of this article, as it relates to Big Ag.
- “The pesticide giant had commissioned Dr. James Cresswell, a bee expert at England’s University of Exeter, to study why many of the world’s bee colonies were dying. Companies like Syngenta have long blamed a tiny bug called a varroa mite, rather than their own pesticides, for the bee decline.”
- “Dr. Cresswell has also been skeptical of concerns raised about those pesticides, and even the extent of bee deaths. But his initial research in 2012 undercut concerns about varroa mites as well. So the company, based in Switzerland, began pressing him to consider new data and a different approach.”
- “Looking back at his interactions with the company, Dr. Cresswell said in a recent interview that “Syngenta clearly has got an agenda.” In an email, he summed up that agenda: “It’s the varroa, stupid.”
- “About a half-decade ago, Dr. Cresswell became interested in the debate over neonicotinoids, a class of pesticide derived from nicotine, and their effects on bee health. Many studies linked the chemicals to a mysterious collapse of bee colonies that was in the news. Other studies, many backed by industry, pointed to the varroa mite, and some saw both factors at play. Dr. Cresswell’s initial research led him to believe that concerns about the pesticides were overblown. In 2012, Syngenta offered to fund further research.”
- “Dr. Cresswell and Syngenta agreed on a list of eight potential causes of bee deaths to be studied. They discussed how to structure grant payments. They reviewed research assistant candidates. Dr. Cresswell sought permission from Syngenta to pursue new insights he gained, asking at one point, “Please can you confirm that you are happy with the direction our current work is taking?”
- “An email from Syngenta to the university said that Dr. Cresswell “will have final editorial control,” but Dr. Cresswell, in another email, expressed concern that a proposed confidentiality clause “grants Syngenta the right to suppress the results,” adding, “I am not happy to work under a gagging clause.” He says the term of the clause was reduced to only a few months.”
- “Dr. Cresswell’s initial research for Syngenta did not support the varroosis claims. “We are finding it pretty unlikely that varoosis is responsible for honey bee declines,” he wrote to Syngenta in 2012. An executive wrote back, suggesting that Dr. Cresswell look more narrowly at “loss data” of beehives rather than at broader bee stock trends, “As this may give a different answer!”
- “Looking back, Dr. Cresswell said that while he still thought concerns about the pesticides were overblown, aspects of his project were inevitably influenced by the nature of the relationship. “You can write it up as, Syngenta had an effect on me,” he said. “I can’t actually deny that they didn’t. It wasn’t conniving on my part, but absolutely they influenced what I ended up doing on the project.”
This last point is particularly important. As we have always said, the issue is not one of malice or purposeful wrongdoing by researchers; rather, the main factors at play are industry meddling and subconscious bias.