When Big Business Attacks Science and Discredits Scientists

Tyrone-thumb-388x389-32741A recent article in the New Yorker  chronicles the systematic attack on science by a large agribusiness on a University of California Berkeley professor who discovered some undesirable side effects caused by one of the company’s chemicals.

Professor Tyrone Hayes was hired by Syngenta (which at the time was Novartis) in 1997 to conduct experiments on an herbicide produced by the company called atrazine. Atrazine is the second most widely used herbicide in the U.S., and has annual sales of about $300 million. It is also one of the most common contaminants of drinking water, and an estimated 30 million Americans are exposed to trace amounts of the chemical.

At the request of the Environmental Protection Agency, Syngenta had assembled a panel of scientists and professors, including Hayes, to study atrazine. Hayes, a well-respected professor of integrative biology who was known for his work on the endocrinology of amphibians, began conducting research on the effects of atrazine on frogs. During the course of his experiments, Professor Hayes discovered that atrazine caused sexual deformities in the frogs; some frogs couldn’t be clearly identified as male or female as they had both testes and ovaries, and others had multiple, deformed testes.

Hayes alerted Syngenta about his findings, but instead of being commended for his research, he found his work and reputation under attack. According to Syngenta documents uncovered in two Korein Tillery class action suits on behalf of 23 Midwestern water providers claiming contamination of their water supplies, the agri-giant conducted a smear campaign aimed at destroying Hayes’s reputation and discrediting his scientific research. (Syngenta settled the class actions in 2012, and agreed to pay $105 million to reimburse more than 1,000 water systems for the cost of filtering atrazine from raw drinking water sources. The company, however, denies all wrongdoing.)

Included in the documents uncovered by the suits was a notebook where Syngenta’s communications manager detailed ways in which the company targeted Hayes. Among the entries: “Discredit Hayes”; “prevent citing TH (Tyrone Hayes) by revealing him as noncredible,” “find ways to ‘exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.'”

As part of Syngenta’s smear campaign, the company’s public relations team compiled a database of more than 100 “supportive third party stakeholders,” including 25 professors, who could defend atrazine and act as “spokespeople on Hayes.” The public relations team also suggested that Syngenta “purchase ‘Tyrone Hayes’ as a search word on the Internet, so that any time someone searches for Tyrone’s material, the first thing they see is our material,” and eventually expanded the list to include such search terms as “amphibian hayes,” “atrazine frogs,” and “frog feminization.”

Syngenta’s supportive third party stakeholders attacked Hayes’s research in such publications as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, saying that his work had “little regard for assessment causality,” and that his claims had “significant implications for environmental and public health” but had not been “scientifically demonstrated.”

Syngenta’s attacks on Hayes extended far beyond the halls of academia and science. A freelance science columnist, who runs a nonprofit funded in part by donations from Syngenta, wrote an article for Fox News titled “Freak-Frog Fraud” that called Hayes a “junk scientist” and dismissed his “lame” conclusions as “just another of Hayes [sic] tricks.”

On another front, the Syngenta public relations team wrote editorials about the benefits of atrazine and about its critics’ “flimsy” science, which were sent to “third-party allies” who agreed to “byline” the articles. These articles ran in the Washington Times, the Rochester Post-Bulletin, the Des Moines Register, and the St. Cloud Times.

Unfortunately, this is hardly the first time that a large corporation or an industry has tried to squelch scientific research and ruin the professional and personal reputation of a scientist. David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Health and Safety, wrote a book called “Doubt Is Their Product,” which examines what are known as “sound science” campaigns: efforts by interest groups and industries to attack credible scientific facts in order to slow or thwart regulation.

“Industry has learned that debating the science is much easier than debating the policy,” Michaels writes. “In field after field, year after year, conclusions that might support regulation are always disputed. Animal data are deemed not relevant, human data not representative, and exposure data not reliable.”

As for Hayes, he quit working for Syngenta in 2000, but has continued to conduct and publish research on atrazine’s effects on frogs. In October 2003, the European Commission removed atrazine from the market over concerns that the water supply could be contaminated, but the chemical is still being used in the U.S.

-Mary Ellen Egan

Email: megan@koreintillery.com