Companies and science: some take aways from the Monsanto trial

US multinational Monsanto has been involved in countless trials for its products and most recently its popular weed killer Roundup. The lateste trial, the Johnson cancer case, concerns a school groundkeeper and was the first to take the weed killer Roundup to trial. The trial got a lot of publicity, especially after Johnson famously won. Supposedly, this ‘win’ opens up for further trials on cancer and Roundup and is thus bad news for Monsanto. It is also bad news for German pharmaceutical company Bayer, that just recently acquired Monsanto. 

Aside from the fact that this widely used weed killer, Roundup, might cause cancer, the case is interesting because it reveals how Monsanto was actively working to shape the science around its product. During the trial, letters were released that revealed many examples of such questionable science-business practices. As one example, Monsanto appears to have been involved in ghost writing i.e. that the company writes text and then asks academics put their name, as authors, on it. As one of the revealed examples, Stanford researcher Mr Henry I. Miller wrote a piece on Forbes’s website in 2015, based on a Monsanto draft and failed to mention any involvement by Monsanto thereby violating Forbes policy for authors. The Forbes piece in question was written in response to the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, that had just labeled glyphosate (ingredient in Roundup) a probable carcinogen. 

Another incident concerns the retraction of research that is unfavorable for the company. In 2013, while he was still editor of the journal ‘Food and Chemical Toxicology’, Mr. Hayes retracted a key study damaging to Monsanto that found that Roundup, and genetically modified corn, could cause cancer and early death in rats. Later, it surfaced that Mr Hayes had had a contractual relationship with Monsanto. This piece in the NYT covers most of the story. This article by science journalist Paul Thacker is also worth while.

What can we learn from this in terms of business and sustainability? Certain companies will inevitably have a strong interest in research, for example to show that their products are safe and effective. In my opinion, the fine line between science, corporate interests and corruption is a key business ethics issue for these companies that the management needs to handle. If not, when such business practices fail, it may show up as cases of unethical business practices, corruption or in the worst case, as for Monsanto, as legal cases. The EU regulation on non-financial reporting requires large companies to report on their anti-corruption and anti-bribery policies and practices. For companies with a large stake in science, how to avoid this kind of unethical incidents should be accounted for in this section.

Moreover, as a take away for us as researchers, we cannot be naive regarding the very strong incentives certain companies may have to meddle with science. While uncovering such cases may feed the publics distrust in science and media, e.g. the fake news debate, not uncovering biased or in worst cases incorrect research may risk the whole scientific system as such.

Regarding questionable retractions of research papers, to my mind full transparency is to not actually retract a paper but to let it remain with proper commentary for example as to why the research findings or methods are questionable. Paper retractions may otherwise, if we are not very careful, become a tool for censorship.

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