In an executive summary report released at this year’s Annual Science/AAAS meeting (Feb, 2012, Vancouver, B.C.), the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) lays out five of the primary “methods of abuse” utilized by private corporations “to exert influence at every step of the scientific and policy-making processes, often to shape decisions in their favor or avoid regulation and monitoring of their products and by-products at the public’s expense.”
Further, the summary report (‘Heads They Win, Tails We Lose – How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public’s Expense’) asserts that these methods are used to “fundamentally alter the decision-making process and exploit executive branch agencies (such as the EPA and FDA), Congress and the courts.”
Corrupting the Science, shaping public perception, restricting agency effectiveness, influencing Congress, and exploiting judicial pathways are the five ‘methods of abuse’ noted.
Laying Bare the Methods of Abuse
In clear, non-technical language, the UCS summary report concisely details these methods. For example, under Corrupting the Science, the report notes five ways that corporations use their influence:
1] Terminating and suppressing research (corporations often end research or withhold unfavorable results)
2] Intimidating or coercing scientists (Scientists and academic institution are often harassed into silence through threats of litigation and loss of jobs/contracts).
3] Manipulating study designs and research protocols (using flawed or biased methodologies in their testing and research)
4] Ghostwriting scientific articles (corrupting the integrity of scientific journals by “planting” ghostwritten articles that actually promote their products).
5] Publication bias (selectively publishing positive results and burying or under-reporting negative results)
In other methods, such as shaping public perception, the report notes a strategy of “down-playing [scientific] evidence and playing up false uncertainty”. Further, this is often attempted through “vilifying scientists” and/or promoting experts who undermine scientific consensus (such as the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change). Using ‘front groups’ and feeding the mass media slanted reports are additional means of shaping public opinion.
One of the most potent methods used and noted in the report — and perhaps the least visible to the public — is restricting agency effectiveness through attacking the science, hindering the regulatory process, corrupting scientific advisory panels, exploiting the “revolving door” (where former government officials return as lobbyists for private firms, exploiting their connections), censoring scientists and their research, and withholding information from the public.
In addition to these methods, it comes as no surprise that (as noted in the summary) corporations use their money and power to influence Congress and to back State judicial election campaigns (wherein a particular judge may rule favorably to the corporate position).
Restoring Scientific Integrity
What facilitates most of this political interference, the report asserts, is a lack of transparency “in how, and on what basis, decisions are made”. This lack of transparency in political decision-making also limits public access to scientists and scientific resources.
The report notes that the Obama administration is the first to have issued an Open Government Directive which “while not perfect”, has expanded public access to large amounts of scientific and governmental data regarding decision-making on the federal level. The process of making Freedom of Information Act requests has also been streamlined under Obama.
However, the report also notes that Obama has so far failed, despite earlier promises, to revisit the Bush administration’s ozone pollutions standards under the Clean Air Act(which were not based upon science but by industry lobbying group and U.S. Chamber of Commerce recommendations)
Another example of a move towards “full transparency” under this government is the EPA’s “fishbowl” memorandum issued by Director Lisa Jackson on her first day on the job (i.e., the agency would operate as if it were a “fish bowl”). The agency has since made information on the safety of industrial chemicals (such as crystalline silica) more available to the public.
The Obama admin has also fought some anti-regulatory proposals by Congress that would limit or “undermine the ability of federal agencies to use science to protect public health and the environment.”
The report advocates restoring scientific integrity through developing scientific integrity policies, such as the recent NOAA policy of opening up its policy-making procedures to input from all its employees in order to “encourage taking ownership of final policy.”
The Essential Reforms that are Needed
The UCS report wraps up with a section recommending five “essential federal reforms”, which are:
1] Protecting government scientists
2] Making the government more transparent and accountable
3] Reforming the regulatory process
4] Strengthening scientific advice to the Government (the new Federal Advisory Committee ACT [FACA] is noted and its passage advocated)
5] Strengthening monitoring and enforcement (the basis of a good, regulatory structure, and the most susceptible to corporate-political influence).
Noting the important role that all entities (federal, private, media, non-profits, etc.) have in insuring scientific integrity, the UCS report ends with a call to ‘private sector stake-holders’ to revisit their policies on scientific integrity, ethics and misconduct.
Top Photo: (scientist at work) Elenagallegos ; CC – BY – SA 3.0