Wannabe whistleblowers believe that funding from the agrochemical industry invalidates research, but this view is overblown
If Bayer offered me $1 million to start a research program, would I take it? If I accepted the funds, my hypothetical laboratory would have years of prosperity. But if the results of my research happened to favor the pesticide industry, I would promptly be labeled a shill.
Would that be justified? There’s a stereotype that industry-funded research is inherently compromised. Perhaps this is true for some specific cases, but for honey bee and pollinator research, it is not the norm for researchers, data, or communications to be manipulated by industry relationships, and it is certainly not a widespread conspiracy. But the perception of back-scratching is damaging enough, sufficient for me to consider forsaking funds, even if I know my integrity is sound. And that bothers me.
The first time I thought hard about the optics of industry backing was at an agricultural biotechnology conference in Saskatoon, Canada, in 2016. I was relatively new to research, just two years deep into graduate school. One of the speakers, Dr. Kevin Folta, a professor in Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, shared a wrenching story of how outrage over Monsanto’s support of his projects effectively ruined his career.
Monsanto donated to the University of Florida’s Foundation, which in part supported Folta’s biotechnology outreach and education program. When the public learned where Folta’s money came from, and that Folta supported the use of genetically modified crops in agriculture, his reputation came crashing down.
I felt bad for the guy. He teared up on stage, disclosing that the scandal culminated with death threats to him and his family. But he had disclosed the source of his funds, and Monsanto did not seem to be involved in controlling his outreach or research activities. Since the funding agreement between Monsanto and the university upheld operational independence, I probably would have accepted that money, too.
In an interview conducted by David Kroll for Forbes, Folta says, “I’ve learned one huge lesson about this, as the naïve scientist that says yes to any opportunity — It’s not what it is. It is what it looks like.” Folta claimed he had “no relationship” with Monsanto, and the discourse devolved into “what is a relationship,” if one party’s activities are funded by the other, despite not otherwise influencing the project. But Monsanto’s actual involvement, or lack thereof, with Folta and the University wasn’t what mattered. When money is exchanged, a relationship is always perceived.
And there’s the rub. If it looks like there is an ulterior motive, the damage is done, whether there is direct interference by the industry backer or not. And that’s a problem, because public paranoia puts scientists between a rock and a brick wall.
We need money to do our research, train our students and buy our equipment, and industry is often willing to provide that, even if they have to stay out of our kitchen. Researchers are further pressured by their own universities to accept grants from companies, because industry funds can often be matched by the government, essentially doubling their money. It’s good for the researchers and their institutions, but it’s the researchers who are left to grow thick skins.
The Folta scandal is far from the only one where industrial support of an otherwise credible program sowed the seeds of doubt. The Intercept, an online news publication, published a long-form investigative article on January 18, 2020, titled “The Playbook for Poisoning the Earth,” by Lee Fang. The article takes a blistering look at Bayer’s launch of what Fang calls a “stunningly successful campaign” to keep neonicotinoid pesticides registered and in wide circulation despite a growing number of scientific publications showing that they are not the harmless compounds that Bayer claims.
Fang believes that Bayer cultivated relationships with honey bee scientists to covertly sway research outcomes and discourse. He cites cases where industry provided researchers with financial support that coincided with what he saw as a suspicious shift in rhetoric away from pesticide-blaming and toward varroa-blaming for dwindling colony health. “The greatest public relations coup,” writes Fang, “has been the push to reframe the debate around bee decline to focus only on the threat of varroa mites.”
He specifically targets Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a professor at the University of Maryland, criticizing him for shifting his research away from neonicotinoids and toward varroa — a diversion, Fang claims, linked to his relationship with Monsanto and Bayer. Dr. vanEngelsdorp was part of Monsanto’s honey bee advisory council, and his initiatives have been funded in part by a nonprofit, Project Apis m., to which Bayer is a major donor.
I can’t speak to the researchers’ integrity for every instance Fang discusses — conflicts of interest do exist, and it’s up to each individual researcher to check their bias and uphold the scientific method. There are instances where companies like Crop Life have pressured researchers to talk more about varroa and less about pesticides. But using these specific examples to invalidate all research that has been funded by agrochemical companies is overreaching. In most cases, the companies remain hands-off and let the researchers do their jobs.
Fang portrays all bee scientists as puppets, lured by the promise of financial aid. He also calls out Dr. Cynthia Scott-Dupree — a Canadian researcher at the University of Guelph — because she published a landmark field trial concluding that the neonicotinoid pesticide, clothianidin, had no significant effect on colony health when applied to canola.1 Fang pointed to the fact that Scott-Dupree held a grant from Bayer as a mark questioning her motives.
“In my 34-year career, I’ve never been asked to change my data,” Scott-Dupree says. “I was never told by Bayer what I should be working on, and they never told me what I could or couldn’t publish. I’m not willing to lower my standards for any amount of money.”
Other scientists, including Dr. Mark Winston — one of the most widely revered honey bee researchers in Canada — don’t hesitate to vouch for her scientific integrity. Scott-Dupree’s Chair in Sustainable Pest Management, funded by Bayer, did not come with any salary reward nor control over her experimental designs, research methods, or dissemination of results.
Scott-Dupree clarifies. “I could have taken some money as salary, but I didn’t. I knew that people would try to insinuate that I was getting some kind of kickback.” And while some criticized her experimental methods, that is part of normal scientific discourse. The story is not so simple as “it was funded by Bayer, therefore it’s junk science.”
“The fact that she [Scott-Dupree] found a result that the pesticide industry might like doesn’t mean she was manipulated,” Winston argues. He posits that the motivation for agrochemical companies to fund external research is not to manipulate scientists — it’s to create a philanthropic image. “They [corporations] care about being seen as good citizens,” he says. “I don’t think they actually care about the results, or they wouldn’t give us all that money.” After all, pesticide-pollinator research most commonly unearths negative outcomes, rather than pesticide safety. “If the [pesticide] industry is so good at manipulating us,” he points out, “why are there so many papers on the risks of neonics?”
The article in The Intercept makes researchers out to be gullible or spineless for accepting financial support from agrochemical giants. But when I asked ….