By David Michaels

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) has fired Sciences International. Last month, Marla Cone wrote in the Los Angeles Times about allegations that the consulting firm, hired by the NTP to run the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR), had significant conflict of interest. The allegation was that Sciences International also worked for manufacturers of Bisphenol A, or BPA, a controversial endocrine-disrupting chemical that CECHR was evaluating. (Jennifer Sass and Sarah Janssen of the Natural Resources Defense Council have post on the BPA evaluation here).

Now, Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post reports that

At the same time it has been advising the federal government, Sciences International has been on the payroll of Dow Chemical, BASF, 3M and other companies that produce some of the chemicals under scrutiny.

The government took action after questions were raised by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. The group complained that Science International was reviewing bisphenol A, a chemical widely used in plastic that has been found to cause cancer and reproductive damage in animals. Dow Chemical and BASF, two manufacturers of bisphenol A, have been among Science International’s clients.

Richard Wiles, the group’s executive director, said the potential conflict of interested points to a larger problem of the federal government delegating too much authority to private contractors.

“Protecting the public health is one of those jobs that can’t be farmed out to contractors who have huge conflicts of interest with polluters and chemical makers,” he said.

At The Pump Handle, we’ve been following the issue very closely. After our initial post reporting the allegations as fact, I apologized to Sciences International, because the consulting firm denied the allegations and pointed out that they were operating under new management.

One issue here is the way that questions about conflicts on interest undermine public confidence in the quality and credibility of government science. And this is exactly what has happened here.

Herman Gibb, the company’s president, could not be reached for comment yesterday. In a March 19 letter to the NIH, he acknowledged three cases in which Sciences International was working for the chemical companies at the same time it was reviewing their chemicals for the federal government. But he said the company reviewed its work and concluded that “no conflicts existed that impaired judgments or objectivity in any of the tasks performed.”

That did not convince federal officials. “We still have some concerns about conflict of interest,” said Allen Dearry of the NIH, which terminated the contract after interviewing company employees and examining corporate client records.

From fighting the war in Iraq to collecting taxes, there does not seen to be an activity or responsibility the federal government is not willing to contract out. For many years, the government has used private contractors to conduct scientific reviews that federal scientists could do. Perhaps this is sometimes necessary, but there is far too much of it. But if we must use contractors, the government needs to ensure it gets the best, unconflicted science. Requiring full conflict of interest disclosure is a necessary first step in getting there.

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.Header image