By David Michaels
Since my post on privatizing federal science, I have learned more about Sciences International and owe them an apology. I said in my post, “Sciences International is not a hack company; it employs some very respected scientists who do excellent work.” But that was buried in the post.
Since writing the post, I have been assured that Sciences International no longer works for chemical manufacturers involved in producing bisphenol A (BPA). I noted in the post that the previous head of Sciences International, who had been involved in work for the tobacco industry, has left the company. In addition, I am told that the statement the company works for chemical manufacturers who produce BPA came from an out-of-date web post, and that the scientists involved in that work have all left Sciences International.
I remain concerned, however, with the potential effects of conflicted interests, and the way that questions about conflict undermine public confidence in the quality and credibility of government science. Which is exactly what has happened here.
We in the science community need to continue to wrestle with the potential effects of conflict on interest when the government privatizes science, as it does more and more. Certainly, disclosure and transparency are the beginning, but more is needed. To begin with, federal agencies like NIEHS should prohibit contracting work to conflicted scientists and consulting firms. If prohibitions like this were in place, we wouldn’t have to debate whether any particular contract was appropriate.
David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.