How agrochemical giants raise issues for scientists through corporate funding of research

A New York Times examination of the experiences of three scientists reveals the ways agrochemical companies shape scientific thought.

While the corporate use of academia has been documented in fields like soft drinks and pharmaceuticals, the newspaper notes, it is rare for an academic to provide an insider’s view of the relationships being forged with corporations and the expectations that accompany them.

One of the three is James Cresswell, a professor at the University of Exeter in England and an expert in flowers and bees. He was commissioned by the pesticide giant, Syngenta, to study why many of the world’s bee colonies were dying.

Dr Cresswell’s experience fits in with practices used by American competitors like Monsanto and across the agrochemical industry.

In Britain, Syngenta has built a network of academics and regulators, even recruiting the leading government scientist on the bee issue, the New York Times says.

In the United States, the company pays academics like James W. Simpkins of West Virginia University, whose work has helped validate the safety of its products.

Not only has Dr Simpkins’s research been funded by Syngenta, he is also a $250-an-hour consultant for the company. And he teamed up with a Syngenta executive in a consulting venture, emails obtained by The New York Times show.

Dr. Simpkins did not comment. A spokesman for West Virginia University said his consulting work “was based on his 42 years of experience with reproductive neuroendocrinology.”

Scientists who cross agrochemical companies can find themselves at odds with the industry for years, the New York Times article says.

One such scientist is Angelika Hilbeck, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The industry has long since challenged her research, and she has been outspoken in challenging them back.

Going back to the 1990s, her research has found that genetically modified corn — intended to kill bugs that eat the plant — could harm beneficial insects as well. Back then, Syngenta had not yet been formed, but she said one of its predecessor companies, Ciba-Geigy, tried to stifle her research by citing a confidentiality agreement signed by her employer then, a Swiss government research center called Agroscope.

The article examines the role of confidentiality agreements, which “have become routine”.

The United States Department of Agriculture turned over 43 confidentiality agreements reached with Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto since the beginning of 2010 after a Freedom of Information Act request. Agroscope turned over an additional five with Swiss agrochemical companies.

Many of the agreements highlight how regulators are often more like collaborators than watchdogs, exploring joint research and patent deals that they agree to keep secret.
One agreement between the USDA. and Syngenta, which came with a five-year nondisclosure term, covered things including “research and development activities,” “manufacturing processes” and “financial and marketing information related to crop protection and seed technologies.” In another agreement, a government scientist was barred even from disclosing sensitive information she heard at a symposium run by Monsanto.

The Agriculture Department, in a statement, said that without such agreements and partnerships, “many technological solutions would not make it to the public,” adding that research findings were released “objectively without inappropriate influence from internal or external partners.”

Luke Gibbs, a spokesman for Syngenta, which is now being acquired by the China National Chemical Corporation, said in a statement, “We are proud of the collaborations and partnerships we have built.”

“All researchers we partner with are free to express their views publicly in regard to our products and approaches,” he said. “Syngenta does not pressure academics to draw conclusions and allows unfettered and independent submission of any papers generated from commissioned research.”

About 50 years 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. Other studies, many backed by industry, pointed to the varroa mite, and some saw both factors at play.

Syngenta is among the companies which argue that a disease called varroosis, spread by varroa mites,  is the real culprit.

Dr. Cresswell’s initial research led him to believe that concerns about the pesticides were overblown. In 2012, Syngenta offered to fund further research.

Turning away research funding is difficult, the New York Times article explains. The British Government ranks universities on how useful their work is to industry and society, tying government grants to their assessments.

Duncan Sandes, a spokesman for Exeter, declined to discuss specific research grants. He said in a statement that up to 15 percent of university research in Britain was funded by industry. “Industry sponsors are fundamentally aware that they will receive independent analysis that has been critically evaluated in an honest and dispassionate manner,” Mr. Sandes said.

But the degree of independence is in question.

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?”

But he also pushed back at times. 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.

Neonicotinoids are subject to a moratorium in the European Union. A recent study by Britain’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology attributed a population loss of at least 20 per cent of many kinds of wild bees to the pesticides.

When Dr Cresswell’s initial research for Syngenta did not support the varroosis claims, a company executive wrote back, suggesting he look more narrowly at “loss data” of beehives rather than at broader bee stock trends, “As this may give a different answer!”

For the next several weeks, the company repeatedly asked Dr. Cresswell to refocus his examination to look at varroa. In another email, the executive told Dr. Cresswell, “it would also be good to also look at varroa as a potential uptick factor” in specific countries where it could have exacerbated bee losses.

In the same email, part of a chain with the subject line “Varoosis report,” he also asked Dr. Cresswell to look at changes in Europe, rather than worldwide. Dr. Cresswell agreed and said, “I have some other angles to look at the varoosis issue further.”

By changing parameters, varroa mites did become a significant factor. “We’re coming to the view that varoosis is potent regarding colony loss at widespread scale,” Dr. Cresswell wrote in January 2013. A later email included scoring that bore that out.

Environmentalists came to regard Dr Cresswell as an adversary and his industry connection came to define him in news articles.

When he was called to testify before Parliament, Dave Goulson, a biology professor at the University of Sussex, sat next to him. Dr. Goulson likened taking money from agrochemical companies to taking money from the tobacco industry, which long denied that cigarettes were addictive.

Some people thrive on controversy. Dr. Cresswell does not.

“It hurt me more than I was willing to admit at the time,” he said. “Everything happened so fast.”

He had a breakdown. He said that he began to feel “I was virtually incompetent,” adding that he would put his head on his desk and think his work was a mess. He ended up leaving his job for several months. Although he presented his research publicly, it was never published.

Dr. Goulson told The New York Times he had known Dr Cresswell for a long time “and always thought he was a good guy”.

“You can’t win,” Dr. Goulson added. “If you are funded by industry, people are suspicious of your research. If you’re not funded, you’re accused of being a tree-hugging greenie activist. There’s no scientist who comes out of this unscathed.”

Dr. Cresswell has returned to less controversial areas of bee research. He says he respects scientists he has met from Syngenta, but views collaboration with industry as a Faustian bargain.


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