Book Review: Protecting Scientific Integrity

The Three Wise Men and the Three Monkeys

The Three Wise Men and the Three Monkeys by Raul de la Nuez

The final chapters offer potential solutions to the litany of science abuses that the book illustrates. Despite the authors’ parenthetical comments that most of science is sound, the stories do present a dismal state of affairs. One of the oversight reforms they suggest would protect against the politicization of federal advisory boards. There are over 1,000 advisory boards that serve federal agencies. Two rules apply to these advisory boards. Rule one is that scientists who have a substantial conflict of interest are excluded from serving. Rule two is that rule one can be waived. The stacking of members on advisory boards has been well documented. And while awarding waivers to conflicted scientific advisers is now well recognized, some agencies have not begun to address the problem.

One of the authors’ primary remedies is passage of legal requirements for disclosure of financial interests for scientists who provide scientific information or analysis to courts or regulators. Such disclosure should cover post-market research conducted on the safety and efficacy of federally regulated products. Of course, scientists providing evidence in litigation can be cross-examined. As one of my colleagues has said repeatedly, the most rigorous peer review he has experienced comes from cross-examination of his claims in the courtroom. But the authors suggest that judges, as gatekeepers of expert testimony, should pay more attention to the conflicts of interest of scientists before their words reach the jury.

According to the authors, disclosure to courts and regulators should be required by law and failure to disclose should be met with sanctions and criminal penalties. Federal regulatory agencies would then be able to ensure that “conflicts are factored into the relevant decisions without losing the value of the underlying scientific information altogether” (p. 239).

Another important governmental reform proposed by the authors is a requirement for data sharing in studies submitted to regulatory agencies. Currently trade secrecy protections prevent independent scientists from reviewing the data that support product safety and regulatory claims made by stakeholders.

Bending Science offers a clear and penetrating diagnosis of the problems that have arisen when academic science and business interests coalesce. The reforms proposed in the book, which are intended to promote data transparency and conflicts of interest within the fields of public health and the environment, are sober and sensible and deserve serious consideration. Disclosure and openness, however, will only get us so far toward a solution. During their graduate training, scientists must be made to understand that their profession demands autonomy and independence. All too often corporations treat scientists like lawyers—as their paid advocates. The responsibility of scientists must be, uncompromisingly, to their profession and to producing knowledge.

Sheldon Krimsky is a professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning and an adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health & Family Medicine at Tufts University. He is author of Science in the Private Interest.