A leading arbiter of ‘good science’ tilts toward industry

“At a time when public mistrust of science runs high, and non-experts are hard-pressed to separate fact from industry-sponsored spin, Sense About Science, a charity based in London with an affiliate in New York, presents itself as a trustworthy arbiter,” says Liza Gross in FERN’s latest story, “Seeding For Science,” which was co-produced with The Intercept. But the organization, which purports to offer “vetted sources” on “controversial products like e-cigarettes and flame retardants” is knotted up in industry ties. Though it has established itself as a credible source, it routinely favors private interests over public health, says Gross.

Sense About Science’s  director, Tracey Brown, wrote in a recent Guardian op-ed that the media fuels fear, by casting doubt on industry-backed studies. “Even when there is no evidence of bias, Brown contended, journalists attack industry-funded research, running exposés on subjects such as fracking, genetically modified plants, and sugar,” says Gross.

Yet there’s a reason journalists ought to be skeptical, says Gross. “Since the mid-1990s, numerous studies have shown that industry-funded research tends to favor its sponsors’ products. This effect has been documented in research financed by chemical, pharmaceutical, surgical, food, tobacco, and, we have learned most recently, sugar companies,” says Gross. “In the 1960s, the sugar industry secretly paid scientists to minimize the role sugar plays in causing heart disease and blame saturated fat instead, according to a study published in the September issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.” 

For its part, Sense About Science has sided with industry to support the use of e-cigarrettes and flame retardants in furniture, though public health studies have warned against both. Trevor Butterworth, the director of Sense About Science’s USA branch in New York, has spent years promoting bisphenol A (BPA). Widely used in the lining of canned drinks and food and other plastic products, BPA is considered to be carcinogenic by the world’s leading reproductive biologists. And yet, Butterworth continues to claim that the chemical is metabolized too quickly in the human body for it to do any harm.

His “arguments have reverberated across an echo chamber of free-market organizations, including Philip Morris’s product defense law firm, Koch-funded think tanks, chemical and food-packaging industry trade groups in Europe and the U.S., and an ostensibly neutral environmental health research foundation run by a chemical industry PR firm,” says Gross. Butterworth was even invited to blog about this point for Coca-Cola, which is a member of the BPA Trade Association.

Sense About Science does not currently receive donations from corporations, but it also doesn’t disclose when the scientists it cites as sources are funded by industry.