Accountability and public interest research

Are these four examples of research really in the "public interest"? We don't think so

by Carolyn Raffensperger


have been rummaging through dictionaries looking for a coherent, clear definition of "public interest research." There isn't one. Various groups have used slogans like "Feeding the World" or "National Security" to identify research projects that must be beneficial to the public. Its difficult to argue that a new technology that has been labeled as feeding the world is NOT in the public interest. At the same time, there are occasions when slogans seem to hide research goals which could harm a large segment of the public.

Philosophers have argued that science always serves a master, usually the benefactor or the person who pays the research bill. The public still funds a large percentage of the research undertaken in the United States. When the public pays for science or when science is used to address a public matter, then the public has a right to decide what questions are asked and how that science is used.

Furthermore, it is time that the public was given the opportunity to hold scientists and public agencies, that claim to be undertaking research in the name of the public, accountable.

The Science and Environmental Health Network, along with the Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education, has developed a working definition of public interest science. That definition is, "public interest research aims at developing knowledge or technologies that have broad public benefit and advance the common good; when the direct and immediate beneficiaries are society as a whole, or specific 'publics' too large, diffuse or poor to organize or advocate for research on their own behalf; when the information or technologies resulting from public interest research are freely available (not proprietary or patented); when such information or technologies are developed with collaboration or advice from members of the public."

In his essay "Staying Sane in a Technological Society," Neil Postman offers some questions which can help us assess whether or not research is conducted in the public interest and whether the working definition has been met. They are: 1) What's the problem? 2) Whose problem is it? 3) What new problems will be created by solving an old one? 4) What people and institutions will be most seriously harmed by a technological solution? 5) What new sources of economic and political power will emerge? (Lapis #7,1998: 53-57)

Two additional questions round out this list: 6) Who benefits from scientific uncertainty? 7) Is science used to delay or obfuscate action?

The world of science has provided some useful case studies to which we can apply these questions: 1) The "Terminator Technology" research done by USDA, 2) testing organophosphate pesticides on human subjects for EPA regulation, 3) EPA's dioxin reassessment, and 4) the story of scientist Deborah Swackhammer. These provide examples of science done in the name of the public that are violations of the principles of public interest research.


Terminator Technology


USDA and Delta Pine Land Co. received a patent on a technique that genetically alters seed so it will not germinate if replanted the following season. The seed-sterilizing technology threatens the ability of farmers to save seed from their harvest for the following season. Delta Pine Land, the largest cotton seed company in the world, has exclusive licensing rights even though USDA co-holds the patent.

USDA has spent approximately $190,000 of public money to support research into what has been -- not so affectionately -- labeled the "terminator technology".

Melvin Oliver, the USDA biologist and primary inventor of the technology, identifies the problem he was trying to solve with this research: "My main interest is in the protection of American technology. Our mission is to protect US agriculture and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition."

If this technology becomes widely licensed, self-pollinating seeds like wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans, oats and sorghum will be controlled by a few seed companies. Until now, there was little commercial interest in these seeds since it was impossible to control reproduction. Rice and wheat are the staple crops for three-quarters of the world's poor.

Measuring the Terminator Technology against the public interest questions indicates that the public is not served by this research. The problem it was trying to solve is protecting investments of private corporations. It reduces agrobiodiversity and increases the fragility of the food system. Farmers and poor people are disenfranchised by Terminator while adding to the power base of a few transnational corporations.


Human guinea pigs


Dan Tarlock, law professor and wit, once said that one of the greatest contributions of the environmental movement was that we had discovered that rats could die for our sins. It looks like we will have to die for our own sins now. Pesticide makers are trying to reduce the time it will take to meet the stringent requirements in the Food Quality Protection Act that protect children by testing pesticides directly on humans. Reports from the Wall Street Journal and Chemical and Engineering News describe new studies of organophosphates in which participants are solicited (and paid) to ingest the pesticide so that manufacturers can determine immediate harmful effects. According to the Wall Street Journal, manufacturers claim the "tests pose few risks to volunteers, meet international ethical guidelines and represent their only recourse to a law that could ban or severely restrict many widely used pesticides in what amounts to a $37 billion worldwide market." (Wall Street Journal: Sept. 28, 1998)

There are several ethical problems with these testing protocols: 1) paying people, particularly students, compromises informed consent; 2) some of the participants were told these were "drug", not "pesticide," trials; 3) the research focus is on protecting investments rather than being precautionary and protecting human health.

So what problem are the pesticide companies trying to solve? Avoidance of regulation for toxic chemicals. The constituents most likely to be harmed by NOT regulating organophosphates are children, our most vulnerable population. Corporations get the benefit of scientific uncertainty, rather than the children. Science is used to delay regulation rather than search for alternatives. Besides, Dr. Chuck Benbrook, internationally recognized pesticide and integrated pest management consultant has indicated that alternatives to the most toxic organophosphates already exist. Those alternatives would benefit the public, farmers and children, but they wouldn't benefit pesticide manufacturers.


Angels dancing on the head of a pin


The Dioxin Reassessment raises similar issues. In 1991, EPA began the second dioxin reassessment at the urging of the Chlorine Institute and the paper industry, since they believed that new information would prove dioxin less harmful than originally determined. Thus began the 8 year wait for EPA to figure out how serious a problem dioxin might be. A draft of the report was issued in May 1995, but the final chapter that characterizes environmental and public health risks is still in the mill.

Why is that a public interest science problem? Charlotte Brody of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice answers it this way, "Every month that goes by without a final version of the reassessment is an additional gift to the dioxin polluters and an additional burden on the American people. EPA is writing new rules for major sources of dioxin pollution -- pulp and paper manufacturing and medical waste incineration, for example -- without hearing the alarms and sirens that the dioxin reassessment will sound." (Everyone's Backyard 1997:24-25)

This is certainly a premier example of science being used to obfuscate and delay precautionary action. Do we know that dioxin causes harm? The answer is "yes." Do we know exactly how much harm? No. But the question is analogous to the old theological issue of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Trying to exactly characterize the dioxin risks before taking action is just as trivial as the angel question. We know enough to act now. It is not in the public interest to hold up the reassessment any longer.


The hammer of justice


Finally, in a troubling turn of events, Deborah Swackhammer, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, has been investigating the pesticide toxaphene and its impact on the Great Lakes -- a question that fits squarely in the public interest. But some mystery person or organization is now investigating her. An anonymous client has hired a law firm to get the raw data and other material Swackhammer generated under an EPA research grant. EPA officials and Swackhammer point to the pulp and paper industry as the probable client seeking her records because it appears that the paper mills might be a source of toxaphene.

Swackhammer and EPA were doing research that benefits the public but threatens industry. Unfortunately, there are few laws or methods for protecting scientists who are serving the public interest.

The scientists who are committed to serving the public often face hardship and untold difficulties. As a citizenry, we need to make it easier for scientists to champion these causes. We can do this by defining our interests clearly and standing up to those who undermine public health and the environment. We can fund science in the public interest and make sure that scientists are rewarded through tenure, promotion and other perks. Its time to prohibit and defund those projects which fail the public interest test. If we don't, more antienvironmental projects will be done in our name. We are going to see scientists intimidated when they do research that threatens narrow, private interests. We are going to see more ethical codes violated and more reports delayed. Even more importantly, its time we the public created our own agenda and funded research that is in our interest.

  Carolyn Raffensperger, Science and Environmental Health Network.