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Questioning assumptions

Apart from not having to go to work, the great thing about the Christmas and New Year holiday is that pretty much everyone else is away as well. That means coming back to a (relatively) clear desk, without new things having piled up as they tend to when we are away from our desks any other time of the year. There is an inevitable settling-in period of a few days at the beginning of January as we get up to speed and try to remember why certain things seemed so important in December.

This break in the normal routine also gives us an opportunity to take a step back and look at important issues with fresh eyes. For those who make New Year’s resolutions, perhaps we should include one that reminds us not necessarily to take everything at face value. We don’t have time to become experts in everything that interests us, but that doesn’t mean we should simply bow to the opinions of those who are (or who claim to be). Everyone is subject to confirmation bias, perhaps particularly so for those with the deepest knowledge. Arguably, the more we know about a topic, the more our opinions become entrenched.

Pesticides – particularly the funding of research by agrochemical companies – will doubtlessly always be controversial. There is also a knee-jerk reaction among many people who do not work in the private sector that any relationship with big business takes away the aura of independence enjoyed by scientists. This is deeply ingrained in an idealistic frame of mind that views profit as immoral.

This is not the place to get started on the enormous benefits the profit motive has brought to society. Suffice it to say that these are often outweighed in the public mind by images of enormously wealthy fat cats. The public sector (state ownership) occupies the moral high ground and there is little that can be done about it, but such attitudes colour judgements on a range of issues.

This is nicely encapsulated in a report from the New York Times at the very end of 2016: Scientists loved and loathed by agrochemical giant. This covers the experiences of several researchers of working with Syngenta, the global agricultural inputs supplier now in the process of being acquired by ChemChina. It focusses on particular on bee expert Dr James Cresswell of the University of Exeter, commissioned by the company to study the impact of varroa mites on bee colonies. Understandably, Syngenta was hoping to find that the neonicotinoid pesticides (of which they are the major supplier), blamed as a major cause of bee death, had been wrongly condemned.

Dr Cresswell had already done work that seemed to show concerns about neonics were exaggerated and, on that basis, Syngenta offered funding for further research in 2012. To quote from the NYT: “The last thing I wanted to do was get in bed with Syngenta,” Dr. Cresswell said. “I’m no fan of intensive agriculture…I was pressured enormously by my university to take that money,” he said. “It’s like being a traveling salesman and having the best possible sales market and telling your boss, ‘I’m not going to sell there.’ You can’t really do that.”

The conflict arose because Dr Cresswell’s initial findings, apparently based on a study of bee stock trends, showed little influence of varroa mites. However, he was eventually persuaded by the company to focus on the loss of bees from individual hives, in which the mites did turn out to be a significant factor. Assuming that both findings were factually accurate, the influence of the client could be seen either as perfectly valid and legitimate or as exerting undue pressure.

Unfortunately, those close to Dr Cresswell were opposed to the very idea of his taking private industry funding: “Me and my mum were like, ‘Oh, you’re taking money,’” his daughter Fay, now a 21-year-old university student, recalled of the conversation that took place. “We didn’t have an argument, but it did get quite heated. We just said, ‘Don’t.’”

Some colleagues took an even more extreme position: 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. The unfortunate doctor later had a breakdown.

But scientific independence is something of a mirage. Scientists have to apply for grants, which are awarded by panels of experts with certain opinions. In some areas, doing research that is seen as a challenge to current thinking is extremely unlikely to be funded, at least through conventional routes. We can see from Prof Goulson’s remarks to Dr Cresswell that some people in the world of biological sciences are biased against pesticides. Dr Cresswell himself said he was ‘no fan of intensive agriculture’.

There are other examples in the article of the agricultural supply industry’s apparently malign influence. The close relationship between Syngenta and Professor James Simpkins of West Virginia University is highlighted, with the implication that he had profited by providing the results that the client wanted on one of its products, atrazine. This is contrasted with the treatment of those who disagree: Most notably, Syngenta started a campaign to discredit Tyrone B. Hayes, a professor it once funded at the University of California, Berkeley, when Dr. Hayes found that atrazine changes the sex of frogs.

The view of Prof Hayes’ work from other scientists is very different: that there is no credible basis for his assertions and no evidence of a normal dose-response curve for the effect of atrazine on frogs. Yet Prof Hayes, despite his clear bias, is seen as independent. The ‘campaign to discredit’ him is simply the use of other experts to give their views. Everyone is entitled to defend themselves.

So let’s be clear. None of us is truly independent. We all have inbuilt prejudices and biases. We wouldn’t be human if we hadn’t made up our minds on certain issues. But that doesn’t mean we should discount everything that challenges our views, hard as it may be to be objective. A good resolution for the New Year would be to look beyond our knee jerk reactions and find truth wherever it may be. Private industry is not always wrong and idealistic environmentalists are not always right.