NPR aired a story on March 15th about how Monsanto recruited scientists to co-author papers that defend the safety of glyphosate. Glyphosate is a chemical compound found in such weed killers as Roundup and Rodeo. Monsanto is the company that make genetically modified seeds that are resistant to weed killers like Roundup. So farmers can spray their crops with weed killer without killing their crop. The problem is that weeds also start to get more tolerant of the weed killer and then farmers have to use higher concentrations of weed killer to stop the weeds. Turns out that glyphosate probably causes cancer, along with some other commonly used pesticide chemicals and insecticide chemicals.
Some of you are probably shrugging your shoulders and thinking "so what, everything causes cancer." That's almost true. Cancer has been a problem since the beginning of multicellular organism existence on this planet, but if you can avoid something that may specifically give you cancer, you should probably do so. Also, in Monsanto's case, they are selling a product that they have promoted as being safe and it actually may not be safe. This story leads to a bigger problem though and that's one of scientific trust. Corporations paying scientists for research skewed in their favor is not new. In the 60s, the sugar industry funded research that downplayed the role of sugar in human health. Scientific papers are retracted all the time. Up until recently, most of those retraction were due to other scientific discoveries that disproved the findings of that paper. Recently though, we've seen a lot of retractions due to fraud and with the U.S. being the most guilty of fraud related retractions. This comes from a review published in 2012 regarding 2,047 life-science and biomedical research papers retracted that year.
That is not only embarrassing but incredibly dangerous. There's no wonder that people in general have a mistrust of scientific information. But what that paper doesn't say is that there were over 28 million papers submitted and published between 1980 and 2012 and of those 28 million, 2,047 were questionable in some way. Do not think that most scientists are out there trying to dupe you when it turns out to just be a couple of bad apples. This science business I'm in is very competitive. In 2013, there were about 40,000 postdocs (think interns) and about 4,000 of them had been so for six years or more. Getting your own lab and moving on in academia is hard and funding research is expensive. The National Institute of Health has about a 32 billion dollar budget that helps to fund more than 300,000 scientists. Divide 32 billion by 300,000. It doesn't leave you with much for lab supplies, consumables and research technicians. Forget about buying any expensive equipment or maintaining service contracts for those things. I am not condoning fraud in any way, but I can see how a scientist desperate for funding could find a way to tweak his/her findings to work in their favor.
When you hear about a new scientific discovery on the news or read about it online, here's a few things you can look for that will give you some sort of an idea of the validity of the science:
- First, check the news source. Is the information coming from a reliable news source? This infographic has been circling social media and is a good representation of reliable news sources for all news, not just science.
- Second, make sure the story is not an opinion piece.
- Third, check the article for links to the original source of information. The original source should be the actual journal article from a reputable scientific journal.
- Fourth, check the original article for funding information. All articles contain an acknowledgment section that includes how the research was funded. If they list a major corporation like Exon, I'm going to question their science and thoroughly read their paper as well as check their references and other research being done in this field.
Bottom line though, when a researcher has to go to corporations for funding, their research is going to lean to the favor of the corporation. This happens more and more as government funding is cut from scientific research. You can help by encouraging your senators and representatives to support funding for scientific research. Making donations to non-for-profit charities like the AIDS Walk of Kansas City is another way to help. Above all, when you read those headlines that sound too good to be true, read the actual article and ask questions.