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Activist Science Undermines Research on Honeybees and Pesticides

As reported in a blog post by David Zaruk, some of the “science” on the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on honeybees appears to have resulted from a pre-orchestrated campaign, rather than an unbiased scientific process. The researchers involved are members of the International Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, which is part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

The task force was ostensibly set up “to bring together through research an integrated assessment of the worldwide impact of systemic pesticides on biodiversity and ecosystems, based on articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.” But Zaruk explains that he discovered a document indicating that the effort was more political than scientific.

The document summarizes a workshop held at the University of Paris back in 2010 at which task force members outlined a strategy designed to make the case that neonicotinoids do in fact harm bees—drawing that conclusion before completing an unbiased, scientific assessment. To that end, it appears that they planned out where they would place studies condemning the chemicals to gain political impact, rather than exploring how they would critically review the body of research.

IUCN is in fact an activist group, so their desire to undermine chemicals is not all that surprising.  But this case does show how activism has permeated scientific research, confusing the world about the state of science on many issues. While we all have opinions, there needs to be a clearly defined line between policy goals and scientific research. 

As Zaruk notes: “[N]o credible scientist starts with a campaign strategy and then conjures up some evidence as an afterthought to fit his or her activist agenda. That is not science!”

Indeed, legitimate scientific discovery requires that researchers try to keep their biases in check, rather than plan studies and placements to garner a desired political objective. In fact, researchers are supposed to begin with a hypothesis and conduct experiments aimed at disproving that hypothesis. So researchers do not leap to conclusions too quickly, scientists are trained to search extensively for reasons to reject their hypotheses. That means that rather than try to prove their theory, they act as a sort of devil’s advocate, attempting to show no effect. In that case, biases may be kept in check and positive associations should be more robust.

The impact of such activist science can be severe since misinformation may lead to bans on useful products. In this case, neonicotinoids are used to produce a safe and affordable food supply, and bans may jeopardize crops and force farmers to use other pesticides that may prove more detrimental to honeybees.

This is perhaps one of the worst cases of researcher bias and activism that has thus far been uncovered. But such covert activist efforts are probably more common than we know.  

But many times such biases are not as overt and orchestrated.  Many times bias stems from the fact that researchers need to get published and attract research dollars, which often depends on producing studies with positive associations that are statistically significant. Accordingly, they may work the data to generate positive associations.

Other times researchers may add some “spin” to weak and meaningless “findings” to garner publication and media interest—and more funding. In a Nature magazine editorial, Arizona State University Professor Dan Sarewitz points to such biases amongst industry researchers working for drug approvals in the pharmaceutical industry. But as this recent case shows, the problem is also prevalent within the politically driven field of government-funded chemical and environmental policy, where funding needs and political biases play a big role.

Unlike their counterparts in industry, government, university, and nonprofit researchers are rarely held accountable for their mistakes. For example, if a drug harms the public, pharmaceutical companies pay dearly and can be driven out of business. In contrast, government and tenured academic researchers continue their work even when useful products are removed from commerce because of their research claims.

Sometimes government-funded research is driven by political agendas bolstered by federal research grants. For example, politicians have funded BPA research ad nauesum because activist claims and headlines have generated fear among consumers. The additional funding has not discovered much of anything new, but the resulting weak and largely inconclusive research continues to generate yet more headlines and fears.

Such realities demand caution when using science to make policy decisions. When making policy judgments, lawmakers also should always carefully consider the full body of research—placing greater weight on the larger, better designed studies—rather than reacting to press releases about small studies with weak associations and poor designs. 

Unfortunately, this is not an easy task; particularly with activist groups work to work to create the impression that their efforts promote “independent” research.