Should scientists accept funding from agro-chemical companies? The devil’s in the details

Oxalis fly P1030303.png

The relationship between use of pesticides (particularly neonicotinoids) and the decline of pollinators is one that I’ve touched on a few times in this blog – see for example:  Bees and pesticides – a major new study just publishedButterflies and pesticides – a new study and a smoking gun; and Pesticides and pollinators: some new studies and contrasting conclusions.  It’s an important and controversial topic that’s unlikely to go away any time soon.  In an article in the New York Times, journalist Danny Hakim has given that particular pot a further stir by discussing Scientists Loved and Loathed by an Agrochemical Giant.

Although it’s been online since New Year’s Eve, the first I heard about the article was when an American colleague sent me a link this morning (the day it appeared in the printed version) and asked me if I had any thoughts and comments about one of the scientists featured – James Cresswell of the University of Exeter.  I’ve known and respected James for over 20 years and I think his contribution to this article provides a brave and open answer to the question I pose in the title of this post: should scientists accept funding from agro-chemical companies?

Please do read that article, it’s fascinating, if not entirely objective in its own right.  The tone and focus of the piece is best summed up by the one-sentence summary at the start, which incorporates a quote from Dave Goulson (University of Sussex):  “With corporate funding of research, “there’s no scientist who comes out of this unscathed””.  In fact that quote is taken rather out of context because Dave’s point was about perceptions of motives and biases, rather than actual corruption of the science and scientists concerned.

Having said that, the article does present a prima facie case that some scientists (though I emphasise not James himself) are playing fast-and-loose with the evidence related to pesticides and GM crops.

Back to perceptions.  Industry funding of university-led scientific research is incredibly common, far more common than the public probably realises.  There are three reasons for that.  First of all, universities are where many subject experts are based, of course.  Secondly, scientific research is expensive: it requires staff, facilities, equipment, funding for overheads, etc.  University researchers are therefore always hunting for money to enable them to carry out research (which in turn is linked to promotion success, career development, and so forth).  Thirdly, external income is an important performance indicator for universities and their constituent departments: James himself is quoted as saying “I was pressured enormously by my university to take that money”, a sentence that will resonate with many UK researchers.

In general the public’s perception (as far as I can tell) is that most of that research is not being corrupted by the industry funding that is attached to it.  In my own faculty at the University of Northampton, for instance, my colleagues have obtained industry funding for research and consultancy work in areas such as product design, lift engineering, materials science, leather processing, computer networks, app development, and so forth.  All controversy-free.

In much of the environmental sector that’s also the case: we’ve had funding from a large water utilities company to write a report on habitat management strategies for reducing rabbit densities close to water bodies, and one of my current research students is being funded by a solar farm company.  Likewise colleagues have been funded by wastes management companies to advise and research in that field.  None of this has generated any negative perceptions, with the possible exception of some aspects of wastes management where issues such as “waste-to-energy” remain controversial.

In other areas of environmental research, however, there have always been accusations of bias levelled at university researchers who are perceived to be industry shills, especially if they are not seen to be toeing a particular line.  I’m deliberately using that word – shill – because it’s something I was accused of being during a heated social media discussion of causes of pollinator declines.  A commenter claimed that I was an “industry shill” for daring to suggest that this was a complex topic, and that there were no easy answers to why (some) pollinators are declining, but that neonicotinoid pesticides were not the only cause.  “Which chemical company is funding your research?” she aggressively demanded to know.  I think I convinced her that I was not (and never have been) funded by chemical companies.  But it raised an interesting question: would I ever accept funding from such companies, if it was offered?

The simple answer is that I don’t know.  It depends what the money was for and what strings were attached in terms of non-disclosure, ownership of data, etc.  As the title of this post states, the devil’s in the details.  I know quite a number of researchers in my field who have had funding from Syngenta, Bayer, and other agro-chemical companies.  Some of these are colleagues with whom I have published research papers.  In general I have no reason to believe that the research conducted by any of these colleagues has been corrupted by their association with the funders.  However in one instance I had a disagreement with a colleague who was not (in my opinion) objective in how they wished to frame part of a paper’s discussion and who may (in my opinion) have been influenced by their association with a particular funder.  In the end this didn’t change the conclusions of the research (which was not itself industry funded) but it did make me pause to consider these subtle biases, which I’m sure could affect anyone*.  Again, perceptions are key here.

Money for the kind of research that’s done by colleagues and myself is always, always going to be in short supply and competitively pursued, and failure to obtain it will always be much more common than success.  Unless funding to address important ecological research questions from government (i.e. taxpayer money) and charities vastly increases, industry will be there to fund research in its own interests, and the perception of scientific bias will remain, whether or not it actually exists.


*I’m not prepared to say more about this particular example so please don’t ask.

19 thoughts on “Should scientists accept funding from agro-chemical companies? The devil’s in the details

  1. ScientistSeesSquirrel

    I read this with great interest, Jeff, as I have a draft proposal to work on this morning that involves insect-control agrochemical industry – in my case, the “agro” is forestry, and the “chemical” is actually biological, but same thing. This is a first for me and I’m certainly thinking hard about it. As you point out, it’s nothing unusual at all in the grand scheme of science… but because it’s new *to me*, I feel like I need to be extra vigilant about attached strings, etc. And I do worry just like you do about perceptions. I don’t have any answers to all this – but I wanted to say that I think you’ve got the right questions.

  2. Susan Walter

    You were lucky to be able to convince your commenter. My experience is that it is almost impossible not to sound defensive in this situation, and in the end, no matter what arguments and evidence you put forward, the result is that your ‘opponent’ resorts to ‘I don’t believe you’ and you simply can’t get around their entrenched attitude.

  3. jeffollerton Post author

    Via email I’ve received the following comment from Dr Adrian Dubock
    Executive Secretary, Golden Rice Humanitarian Board ( who asked me to post it for him. It’s long but worth reading (though I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says):

    There are at least 3 assumptions reflected in the article:

    1. Only scientists from public sector institutions (let’s call them “Academic Scientists”) are good scientists.
    2. All Academic Scientists are good scientists.
    3. All of ‘industry’ should be distrusted, including scientists employed by industry.

    All three assumptions are just that: unproven assumptions. I think all three are incorrect.

    But these are longstanding attitudes: in 1977 I was working for the UK government as a scientist. A neighbour suggested that I apply for a job in the private sector she had seen advertised. I thought to be employed by the private sector would highjack my moral compass, and remove intellectual stimulus. Nevertheless, because the new work location was in a beautiful location, (in West Sussex) I applied for the job, and got it. I never regretted my decision: I was incredibly and continually challenged intellectually. There were lots of varied job opportunities globally. I was not constrained by my academic discipline, only by my ability. In most of the roles I was being paid to do what I wanted: I received very little direct direction from my bosses for my work. I learned to accept criticism. My colleagues were smarter, intellectually and behaviourally, than most of the ones I worked with in Government, and most were harder working too. I never had any challenge to my moral compass. And did not observe such behaviour by anyone.

    The problems Dr Cresswell encountered from his family and colleagues, and which appear to have led to psychological problems relate to the above three assumptions. Dr Hakim’s article is the type of article which, though implication, without evidence and I suspect though selective quotation, reinforces the assumptions, and causes the problems, not just for Dr Cresswell, but for science generally, and other scientists.

    With respect to Dr Simkins and Dr Breckenridge, I am surprised at the relationship between the two highlighted was allowed by Breckenridge’s employer Syngenta. Perhaps this was after he had left Syngenta’s employ? I think Dr Breckenridge’s judgement is brought into question by his “snake-oil” comment.

    With respect to Dr Hilbeck, she assumes that because her work was published, and she believed in it, it was unreasonable for anyone to challenge the results, especially a scientist who had worked for industry, such as Dr Romeis. But science proceeds by challenge, including of published papers. And related work to Dr Hilbeck’s on lacewings also was proven to be so adversely affected by poor experimental design as to be irrelevant to the real world of Bt-corn on non-target insects, and was also unrepeatable: the famous case of Losely et al (Dubock, 2009, Nutrition Reviews® Vol. 67(1):17–20 ) with Monarch butterflies. That Dr Hilbeck’s contract was not renewed may be as much to do with her inability to properly defend her research against criticism as any other factor. Switzerland is very anti-gmo crops, and there is no way Agroscope would have been vulnerable to, or reacted to any “Syngenta pressure” in the extremely unlikely event any such pressure had been attempted.

    In all three cases there is an implication that to challenge results and approaches is questionable. Many company scientists are at least as smart as their academic counterparts. And yes they, the former, are motivated to investigate results to disprove often assumed prejudices against agrochemicals and gmo-crops. And in the cases of Cresswell and Hilbeck apparently this was justified: by Cresswell himself as quoted by Hakim, and by the peer review process of publication in the case of Dr Hilbeck.

    I think the quotes from Syngenta sources are all eminently reasonable. Personally, I think that company lawyers sometimes impose far too onerous confidentiality and other provisions on agreement partners. Conversely , such restrictions allow free communication, and prevent misquoting of commercially sensitive information or even damaging quotations out of context.

    I often challenge individuals, who believe in the inherent superiority for the public sector employee, by asking where the tax income comes from which pays for the public sector employees? For their work? For their pensions? Wealth creation, which can be taxed, is the function of the private sector, and it’s what pays for the public sector. And I think the private sector is more accountable than most of the public sector, including with respect to employees from both sectors.

    (I worked for 30 years from 1977 to 2007 for ICI Plant Protection Division, Zeneca Agrochemicals, and Syngenta. And have a Syngenta pension as a result.)

  4. jeffollerton Post author

    Have just replied to Adrian as follows:

    Thanks for the comment. It’s an interesting perspective, some of which I agree with (I’m sure there are plenty of good scientists in industry) but some I don’t. In particular the idea that only the private sector is involved in “wealth creation” is, I think, a fallacy. There are any number of examples of university-led research that has gone on to generate considerable wealth, both independently and in collaboration with industry. In addition, the private sector can only exist because it is supported by the country’s educational infrastructure, much of which is clearly public sector.

    In the case of modern universities, however, whether or not we are truly “public sector” is a matter of opinion: we are under significant government control, but are mainly funded by student fees, not taxes. Students buy their education in much the same way as they buy any other service. In this regard the UK-HE sector generates a huge amount of wealth.

  5. -

    I agree that the issue is complex, and that pesticides are not the only cause/contributor. It is important to test the safety of pesticides for pollinators, but there are many loopholes in the process that scientists as individuals and in groups, for a variety of reasons, let exist or participate in. 1. Is it good science to test the safety of pesticides without looking at additive and synergistic effects? The US EPA does not require research on those effects during pesticide approval processes. 2. Is it good science to test the safety of pesticides used on agricultural crops plants without considering the effects on relevant native (or managed) non-Apis pollinators? For example: tomatoes-Bombus, squash-Peponapis/Xenoglossa, almonds-Osmia, blueberries-Habropoda. Is it equally likely that scientists can obtain funds to test effects of field-realistic doses/exposure rates of glyphosate for Apis and ground-nesting bees? This type of Apis-centered research dominates and is used to determine application rates. As a scientist should we accept funds to study the effects of a pesticide, when only two weeks of data may be used to determine what the EPA deems “long-term” effects (when bees can live much longer and intergenerational effects may exist)? When a) research is associated with such pressure to accept large sums of money, b) agro-chemcial companies can offer those funds, and c) companies/scientists can focus on simplistic approaches to pollinator health with government approval, the topics of inquiry narrow as a result (as described in the paper: Dr. Creswell and other examples), and there is some scientific credibility lost. There is a momentum, and a cultural-acceptance of sticking to simplistic, forward trajectory solutions. The fact that such simplified research and data is used to “rubber stamp” pollinator-pesticide safety precautions should raise scientific and public concern. But when the public so severely lacks knowledge regarding the complex scientific world of agriculture and pollinators it is hard for them to properly assess the political aspects of research funding in this area.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks for the comment Brian, I agree with what you say here (and there’s an interesting contrast to Adrian’s points).

      The last talk I saw James give, at Bumblebee Working Group, he was discussing how the regulations on pesticide testing in the EU were going to be strengthened to include Bombus and (I think) Osmia. Will be interesting to see how that pans out in a post-Brexit UK…

  6. Gill

    Excellent article Jeff, and one I shall use as a discussion point with the Conservation and Science team at BBCT. I sometimes struggle with having a rational discussion on contentious issues using social media particularly twitter where it is often polarised, your blog however is often the voice of reason.

  7. sleather2012

    You have preempted one of my planned posts! Yes, a vexed issue and as someone who has worked mainly in the applied end of entomology for many years, industrial funding is and has been our main source of funding as NERC and BBSRC have generally ignored and refused (occasionally an application has slipped through and been successful, particularly under the old iCASE system now sadly put to death by BBSRC as regarded as too administratively expensive) to fund our type of whole organism and fairly immediately useful research. I also have friends who work in industry and I certainly don’t regard them as being poor scientists or biased in any way. Charitable funding (another source of income for us denied RCUK funding) also comes with its own baggage.

  8. philipstrange

    I have visited James Cresswell at Exeter and had very productive discussions so it is very sad to see the effect of the collaboration with Syngenta on him.

    Perhaps I can give the biomedical scientist’s perspective on the industry/academia conundrum. I worked for more than 30 years as an academic scientist and had extensive interactions with industry. I never saw my industrial contacts as being in any way sub-standard, I always valued the interactions and found them enriching. I did, in fact, feel slightly patronised by people in industry on more than one occasion, they sometimes assumed a superiority of knowledge about assays etc. but I just laughed it off. I do remember after we had published a novel paper talking to one of my industrial contacts and he basically said he didn’t believe our data because he had tried to do the same thing and failed. We arranged for my postdoc to visit his lab, she showed him how to do the experiments so he had to change his tune!
    My interactions with industry included many PhD studentships and several postdocs part funded by industry, also a couple of fully funded postdocs. The projects were never close to marketplace and so I never felt the cold hand of industry trying to affect what we did. I never accepted any gagging clauses and my industrial interactions never influenced my opinions. I also had equivalent research council funding and felt comfortable with the mix of support and the relevance that interactions with industry brought to the lab. I always found the industrial scientists to be open to discussion and interested in what we were doing.

    So, what about the agrochemical industry and neonics? I have two issues about the way Syngenta and Bayer behave. First, they often refer to data they have but it is rarely subjected to peer review and little or none of it is in the public domain. My second concern is their reaction to new peer reviewed studies showing negative effects of the neonics. Their knee-jerk response seems to be to rubbish the work rather than to engage in debate or discussion. Here are a couple of examples: one to Dave Goulson’s Science paper; another to the Rundlof Nature paper . The academic studies are carefully conceived, have been peer reviewed and deserve better treatment. The simple knee-jerk rubbish response only serves to increase mistrust of the agrochemical companies.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Philip, great comments and a useful perspective. I’ve been having some more email conversations with Adrian Dubock (not all strictly relevant to this post) and he made a very firm statement that: “there is nothing evil about industry, and it is damaging to society to think there is.”

      My reply was as follows: “I generally agree…though there are times when industry acts in a less-than-moral way (which some would define as “evil”). The recent scandal over Volkswagen’s car emissions, BP’s role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Bhopal….I could go on. Yes, “industry” does a lot of good. But when it does bad it does spectacularly badly.”

      Syngenta and Bayer seem to be behaving badly in relation to neonicotinoids, as you say.


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