comment from New Scientist, 26 June 2004
NUCLEAR power, genetically modified crops, prescription drugs, passive smoking - name the debate, and you will find opinion pieces on it by the most senior figures in science in newspapers and magazines across the world. What is bewildering, if not scandalous, is that some of these supposedly independent experts conceal their relationship with the industries they are writing about. Now an even more insidious trend is emerging: scientists are signing articles they haven't even written.
Take, for example, the way the US nuclear industry has been approaching public relations. Like nuclear companies everywhere, those in the US have long been trying to shake off the legacy they inherited from the bomb-dominated days of the 1950s. The secrecy and deceit of old have been replaced by the new mantra of "openness". Now, we are told, everything is transparent, above board and hunky-dory.
Yet last month it transpired that the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a body funded by the industry in the US, hired a spin doctor to ghost-write pro-nuclear newspaper columns that were signed by academics. No one would have known but for the fact that the writer had recycled certain telltale phrases in articles purportedly written by different authors.
On 9 December 2003 Abdel Bayoumi, a mechanical engineer from the University of South Carolina, wrote a column in The State, a daily newspaper in Columbia. He argued that failure to grant adequate government funding to the proposed nuclear waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was "stealing money from the taxpayers who were required to support the waste-management project".
Then on 4 March 2004 a column by a University of Texas nuclear engineer Sheldon Landsberger appeared in another daily newspaper, the American-Statesman in Austin, Texas. It, too, argued that denying the Yucca Mountain project adequate government funding was "stealing money from taxpayers who were required to support the waste-management project". Other sentences, and the entire last paragraph, were identical.
Landsberger had not copied Bayoumi; he had merely agreed to put his name to a piece written by someone else - Peter Bernstein, a copywriter with the PR firm Potomac Communications Group in Washington DC that works for the Nuclear Energy Institute. All this was unearthed by the journalist William Adler, who discovered numerous other traces of Bernstein's handiwork in pro-nuclear opinion pieces signed by different authors in newspapers across the US over the past decade. Bill Perkins, Bernstein's boss at Potomac Communications, does not try to deny this activity takes place. "I doubt that there is a public affairs campaign by any advocacy group in the country that doesn't have some version of this," he told Adler.
Ghost-writing, or getting someone who doesn't appear to have a vested interest to deliver your message, is known by PR companies as the "third-party technique". According to the British investigative journalist Andy Rowell, it has been widely used by PR agencies to help pharmaceutical companies promote their drugs.
Why do scientists do this? Perhaps they weren't motivated enough to write the piece themselves, or they were too busy to spend the time crafting it. But why make it look otherwise? If they do write something, why not reveal if they were prompted to do so by an industry? That would make everything much more straightforward.
Even when a scientist does write the piece him or herself, it is distressingly common for some not to declare their interest. Earlier this month a letter appeared in the British Medical Journal signed by Geoffrey Kabat in response to a study that observed a reduction in the number of heart attacks in Helena, Montana, over a six-month period in which a ban on public smoking was enforced.
Kabat disputed the study's claim that this indicated there was a link between heart attacks and passive smoking. His letter did not contain a declaration of any conflict of interest. But a reply to his letter by the authors of the study suggested that such a conflict did exist, and a quick search of the BMJ archive shows he had carried out research funded by the tobacco industry which concluded there was little evidence for a connection between passive smoking and heart attacks.
The result of keeping secrets and deploying the third-party technique is that readers are manipulated and denied information they have a right to. When a scientist lends his or her name to one side of an important debate, the public has a right to expect them to be completely upfront about any potential conflicts of interest. And it's equally important they declare when a company requests they endorse an article that they did not themselves write, to dispel any impression that they felt more strongly about an issue than they actually did.
Scientists who fail to be open in this way tarnish their own name, and let down their colleagues by association. They also fail in their duty to the public at large. There is a clear choice: be absolutely honest or absolutely silent.