Environmental Protection Agency

If Industry-Funded Scientists Can Be Conflicted, Surely Government-Funded Scientists Can Be Too

Scott Pruitt blocks EPA-funded researchers from serving on the agency's advisory boards.

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Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has declared that researchers who receive funding from his agency cannot serve on its scientific advisory committees. "It is very, very important to ensure independence, to ensure that we're getting advice and counsel independent of the EPA," Pruitt told reporters Tuesday, according to The Washington Post.

Nearly 10 years ago, I researched the issue of research conflicts of interest for the American Council on Science and Health. My report concluded that

there is very little evidence that alleged conflicts of interests are significantly distorting scientific research, harming consumers and patients or misleading public policy. Most conflicts of interest activists clearly have prior strong ideological commitments against markets and corporations. They view the conflicts of interest campaign as another tool to attack an enterprise which they already despise on other grounds.

Interestingly, in my review of the voluminous conflicts-of-interest literature 10 years ago, I could find no published studies that even attempted to see whether government funding might skew research results in the direction favored by the agency that supported such research.

If there are any such studies out there, please direct my attention toward them now. The topic is certainly worth addressing. As the economists William N. Butos and Thomas J. McQuade argued in 2005,

Scientists' success in securing funding testifies to their submission of proposals that receive a favorable hearing by the funding agencies. Thus, scientists have an incentive to develop and nurture professional relationships with agency members, advisors, and consultants. Finally, government funding of science, including that associated with military R&D, unavoidably establishes linkages between the funding agencies' preferences (or legislative charge) and the scientific activity that university and industry researchers perform. These linkages relate to the purposes for which funds are made available, thereby affecting the direction and regulation of scientific research as well as specific protocols for military R&D.

In a column published just when the anti-fracking hysteria was peaking, I asked, "Is Regulatory Science an Oxymoron?" At the conclusion I posed a couple of questions:

Why is it that environmentalists and environmental agency bureaucrats can always gin up studies that show that any activity they oppose and/or want to regulate is dangerous to the environment? On the other hand, why is it that energy producers and energy agency bureaucrats can gin up studies that suggest that the benefits of any activity they favor outweigh the costs?

My tentative answer: Regulatory science is an oxymoron.

In any case, the foregoing is not meant endorse any of the candidates nominated by Pruitt to serve on the EPA's scientific advisory board. Each will need a case-by-case evaluation; avoiding both government shills and industry shills is a good idea. But Pruitt's ruling that researchers dependent on agency funding should not serve on EPA advisory committees is not self-evidently wrong.

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44 responses to “If Industry-Funded Scientists Can Be Conflicted, Surely Government-Funded Scientists Can Be Too

  1. Government money is pure. Oil money is dirty.

    1. And by extension, anyone (especially pubic servants) taking Government Almighty money is pure and noble, motivated ONLY by the Greater Pubic Good, whereas carbon-loving capitalists are nothing, ever, ever, EVER, except the greediest of EVIL slime-bags!

      (I want some Government Almighty money to purify my putrid soul, WHERE and HOW do I get it?)

  2. All scientists are conflicted some extent or another. All of us are. That’s humanity.

    We have increasingly come to view scientific research as an infallible means to define truth. This goes against one of the core values of science, that it is in fact incredibly fallible. You don’t have to jerk yourself off and read Poppler like I do, but the idea that scientific inquiry has results one about can empirically argue about is a core thing separating it from Dogma.

    1. But some things are more settled than others. Open the mind, but keep the brain in.

      1. Rich coming from you.

      2. 90% of academic biology results cannot be reproduced by an independent lab.

        1. Ergo climate change is false, vaccines cause autism, tax cuts pay for themselves, leprechauns are real, and whatever the fuck you want!

          1. Exactly right.

            If you can’t repeatedly reproduce the result, it’s not science, it’s propaganda and should be treated as such.

    2. We have increasingly come to view scientific research as an infallible means to define truth
      Hey, you and the mouse in your pocket leave me out of this.

      Joking aside, I think most folks with an actual solid foundation in scientific theory don’t do that. But journalists writing about scientific research almost always overstate what was “proved”, conflate causation with correlation, and commit other sins of inquiry that folks with a stronger foundation wouldn’t do.

      And as a result, most folks (who lack such a foundation) are led to believe by journalists that “truth” is a lot more defined the any proper scientist would ever claim it is.

      So yeah. You and the 200 million mice in your pockets leave me out of this.

      1. I think that is a fair comment. I will say that there is an element of salesmanship in all sciences as well because, well, they got to get funding. And this can cause an issue where one’s connection is overstated, particularly in many situations where the result is politically motivated.

        And so, someone working in public health has more pressures for results to come out certain ways to ensure more funding. While someone working in, I don’t know, HPC or something is in demand to get results but they are relatively objective and more detached from national politics.

      2. I think it’s not just journalists that I was complaining about and more laymen in general. People online have increasingly started using “It’s science” as an arguing point. And it works, we joke about it here with “The science is settled” comments. (Though many here, myself included I’m sure, will fall upon this when it suits us)

        It would probably be better if legislation was much more detached from scientific findings. Not the least reason being that most domain specific research is going to be difficult to interpret for outsiders.

  3. RE: If Industry-Funded Scientists Can Be Conflicted, Surely Government-Funded Scientists Can Be Too

    Why do we have the EPA again?

    1. Because Americans proved over and over again that “the Tragedy of the Commons” wasn’t just a rhetorical device.

      1. And there’s no way a huge pot of public money is ever one Big Common.

      2. And why do we have so much “Commons” again?

  4. “It is very, very important to ensure independence, to ensure that we’re getting advice and counsel independent of the EPA,”

    Once upon a time that would have been taken as an innocuous statement, of course scientific research requires independence. Unfortunately, that’s not how science works any more. It’s conclusions first, evidence to follow.

    1. What you talkin’ ’bout Willis? The only time we’ve ever had real “independent” research was when you had bored rich guys tinkering around. The moment you get folks that aren’t independently wealthy doing research, you have folks that are asking for money. The moment you’re asking for money, there’s going to be strings.

  5. avoiding both government shills and industry shills is a good idea.

    That won’t leave much, except for people who don’t receive any funding at all, Maybe it would be better to load up the board with equal numbers of shills for both sides and just let them kill each other require a 2/3 majority for anything to be officially adopted.

    At any rate, I agree with your last conclusion–it’s not obvious that government-funded researchers are any more objective than any other kind.

  6. We know that corporate science is corrupted by people, therefore, government. QED.


  7. Interestingly, in my review of the voluminous conflicts-of-interest literature 10 years ago, I could find no published studies that even attempted to see whether government funding might skew research results in the direction favored by the agency that supported such research.

    It’s simply logical not to bite the hand that feeds.

    1. And, I would add, the absence of such literature could very well be the answer you’re looking for.

  8. Well now the EPA is run by a person with an agenda to throw science into a dumpster and set it on fire, so we shall get to test your little query.

    Remember when you guys used to be against factual relativism? What science can be trusted? It all requires money to do!

    Let’s just give the oil companies everything they ever ask for while we wait around for something to change on that count.

    1. ‘Factual Relativism’ is an oxymoron.

      1. We all used to agree on that.

        1. No, you never did. You still think science is a popularity contest.

          1. You think science is whatever some cheeto-munching basement dweller with a blog says it is.

    2. “It all requires money to do!”

      Government Almighty has MUCH more money that can be brought to bear, upon the problems of the day… Government Almighty, unlike the EVIL oil corporations, having the power of COERCION at its beck and call… Government Almighty, and Government Almighty alone, can be TRUSTED to PROTECT us all! In a TOTALLY “scientific” manner!

      “Trust in Me, just in Me”!!!

      1. That thing your vomiting your stupid opinions onto was the product of government-funded research. Pretty much everything we know about everything comes from government-funded research. The true test of science is results. And we do have a few.

        Meanwhile corporations are by law required to do things that benefit the bottom line. If that includes basic scientific research, all the better, but in the cases we’re talking about mostly it involves corrupting science and trust in science like a dirty old whore.

        1. “Meanwhile corporations are by law required to do things that benefit the bottom line.”

          Bottom line being…? Bottom line being “human welfare” as defined by commie regimes has failed something God-awful, to the tune of at least 100,000,000 dead people during the 20th century.

          I will grant you that “bottom line” for greedy collusionists of the Government-Almighty buddy-buddy-with corporate sluts version, is not so cool either. At least THESE kinds of sluts have SOME limit to their appetite, as opposed to the likes of Stalin and Mao, who see NO limits to THEIR appetites!

          The major difference between the “evil” oil companies, and the Government Almighty types, at the end of the day, is, one of them has the power to imprison me if I disagree, and one does not. I would rather listen to folks who do NOT threaten to imprison me!

        2. Ok, that probably qualifies as the dumbest thing you have ever said. The vast majority of what we know had nothing to do with the government.

          1. One of the very earliest useful things we learned was agriculture… Domesticating plants and animals.

            Which did NOT come from Government Almighty! Rather, Government Almighty came from agriculture… As soon as agriculture led to living on fixed, defended parcels of land… Government Almighty, parasite extraordinaire, figured out that you could TAX that land! Pay up, or we take your land!

        3. Tony:

          Pretty much everything we know about everything comes from government-funded research.

          Wikipedia:

          The US spent $456.1 billion for research and development (R&D) in 2013, the most recent year for which such figures are available, according to the National Science Foundation. The private sector accounted for $322.5 billion, or 71%, of total national expenditures, with universities and colleges spending $64.7 billion, or 14%, in second place.[4]

          But hey, why use facts and google when we just know what we want to know already?

          1. Where is the money coming from in those stats? I’m confused, because presumably the Universities are spending grant money.

          2. “The private sector accounted for $322.5 billion, or 71%, of total national expenditures, with universities and colleges spending $64.7 billion, or 14%, in second place.[4]”

            And now consider how focused and results oriented that private sector research is compared to government sponsored retard projects and the effective weighting reflects even more favorably toward private funding.

  9. Ideology can be just as blinding and corrupting as profit.

  10. If regulatory sciene is oxymoronic, what about researching” conflicts of interest for ” a Chamber of Commerce style lobbying organization like ” the American Council on Science and Health.”?

    1. There is a point to this question. I know there is.

    2. E: You could read it and make up your own mind if it is a fair analysis. And the deal was that they had no editorial control over what I reported. Check out my disclosure at the end of the report.

      1. I frequently question your conclusions but you haven’t given me a reason to question your integrity.

    3. Hey, science reporting for a publication with a cult-like ideological agenda is hard!

  11. My thesis project was withheld from publication until my collaborators secured their next round of funding.

    My results were not consistent with their grant application’s narrative.

    But time proved me correct. By then they had repositioned their work.

  12. “Interestingly, in my review of the voluminous conflicts-of-interest literature 10 years ago, I could find no published studies that even attempted to see whether government funding might skew research results in the direction favored by the agency that supported such research.”

    The biggest funding agencies operate by peer review (or else have very applied goals). That means the same people doing research are deciding who’s proposals most deserve funding. The same people also take turns functioning as program managers, where the priorities and thrusts are decided.

    People who go against the grain do not get funded by this system. This means they likely do not get tenured posts and end up leaving the system entirely. And of course this means only those who go along with the prevailing bias are left to propose and review research.

    Let’s not forget the publication system is the same way, you need top journal publications to establish yourself for getting a job as well as for getting funded (the accomplishments of the applicant is one of the most important factors). And the same bias selection game comes into play in the peer review process here too. Some deeply-flawed study claiming gun control laws work can make it into the very top impact factor journal and launch some young researcher’s career. A study claiming the leftist narrative is wrong? Good luck with that.

    It’s a predictable kind of emergent order.

  13. I wonder if Pruitt will allow all of the new industry scientists impaneled on the board to hold their board meetings inside his cone of silence.

  14. If science is so critical, maybe it shouldn’t be done by a group that can be so easily derailed by the results of an election.

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