Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Could someone please explain to me what's a Conflict of Interest?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how several GMO researchers and/or advocates have had their emails seized under Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA). These requests come from US Right to Know (USRTK), who is being heavily funded by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). The OCA is one of the strongest voices opposing GMOs (it also happens to oppose vaccines, too). The emails from one scientist uncovered that he had his expenses paid for by Monsanto when he traveled for talks (which is a standard industry practice), and that his department received a $25K grant from Monsatan for SciComm. The hoopla is over the fact that he claimed not to have any sort of relationship with Monsanto.

In light of this, there has been much talk on what constitutes a Conflict of Interest (COI) and what should be disclosed. This list from the journal PLoS on COIs has been circulated in the twittersphere as an example of what may constitute a COI. I looked over it and was left really confused, primarily because of the phrase I've highlighted in this sentence: "A competing interest is anything that interferes with, or could reasonably be perceived as interfering with, the full and objective presentation, peer review, editorial decision-making, or publication of research or non-research articles submitted to PLOS."

I've read quite a few articles that have covered the FOIAs of these scientists. Many of the articles state that the scientists involved, who did not break any of the COI and disclosure rules in their institutions, could have been more open: that the debate over GMOs is a public debate and the public has different definitions for terms such as "relationship". The issue with this argument is that if you follow the anti-GMO activists who are the loudest voices in the debate and are in the driver's seat in the attempts to discredit these scientists, anything could be perceived by them to be a conflict of interest. Even if you ignore these voices, we all view things differently and, therefore, we will have different perspectives on what may or may not be a conflict of interest if we leave it up to perceptions.

Let's imagine for a moment that these FOIAs had been requested against scientists involved in educating the public on vaccine safety, but that none of the scientists were directly involved in vaccine development. If one of these scientists received a standard 10% discount on a run-of-the-mill enzyme from Roche, would that be a COI given that Roche is also involved in vaccine development? If one of the scientists had a boxed lunch at a conference seminar hosted by VWR (who sells syringes) should that be disclosed? If a researcher had a student who graduated and then went on to work for Merck, would the researcher have a relationship with Merck? Would that relationship suddenly vanish if the former student moved on to a different company? Do researchers have to keep track of where all their former students and friends work to know whether or not they have relationships with different business sectors? I'm sure that each one of these would be perceived to be a conflict of interest in certain circles.

Getting back to the GMO-debate and COI, ten years ago, the spouse worked in marketing for a major fast food company. I'm sure that many anti-GMO activists would consider that to be a COI if I were a GMO research scientist. What if I said that the fast food company was Chipotle? All of a sudden, that would no longer be a problem given Chipotle's shunning of GMOs. PLoS calls for disclosing "Personal convictions (political, religious, ideological, or other) related to a paper's topic that might interfere with an unbiased publication process (at the stage of authorship, peer review, editorial decision-making, or publication)". So if I were a reviewer asked to review a paper related to the safety of organic food, would I need to disclose that I refuse to shop at Whole Foods? Is there anything more ideological than refusing to shop at Whole Foods because of the company's stance on GMOs and their support of misleading campaigns against biotech crops?

So, my question to the academic community is this: why are you defining conflict of interest based on the biases of the public? Why is this discussion or public debate being driven by the lowest common denominator? What I'm seeing is that scientists involved in research or outreach with the public on topics where we genuinely need more scientists involved are being penalized by having to disclose far more than what their institutions demand or, more importantly, than what is demanded by scientists in less controversial fields. Dr Kevin Folta recently announced that all his expenses would be outlined online and this is being hailed as a huge step in the right direction. I disagree and think that this will lead to ridiculously long statements of disclosures that scientists feel compelled to provide just to be "safe". Check out this article for an excellent example. At the same time, I'd wager that even if scientists were to provide income tax and banking documents, it will not satisfy those who are quick to call "shill": they'll just come up with some other theory like "the Monsanto office in Switzerland is depositing money into your spouse's Cayman Islands account".

What on earth would motivate an upcoming scientist to engage with the public if these are the standards that they will be held to? We all know that we need more scientists engaging with the public and outreach, and this is a very strong deterrent.

My personal perspective is that all scientists need to be held to the same standards and scientists in specific fields should not be penalized. Holding all scientists to the same standards that Dr McGuire is being held to would mean changing the way we engage with our industry partners and how marketing is done in biotech. No more free t-shirts, industry sponsored journal-club with pizza, those awesome eppendorf pens that look like pipettes, or reagent discounts from a vendor for being a "loyal and preferred customer". Again, I'm not saying that this isn't the direction that academia should move towards, but either a) it should be done universally rather than targeting a select few or b) academia should push back and educate the public on the relationship between academia and the private sector. When the spouse reviewed this article, the other option he offered was 100% public funding of research so that no industry funding or association would be needed. But I'm not sure if that's plausible, given the fact that nearly every reagent, instrument, and often samples that researchers use are made by the private sector. In the case of the private-Ag/public-sector relationships, 100% public funding of research would mean that tax dollars would pay for the testing of Monsanto products, and that public researchers would be the exclusive developers of new plant varieties, neither of which seem right to me.

The bigger issue, in my opinion, is that if COIs are not outlined and detailed and are left to what is "perceived", researchers and scientists are left open to allegations of fraud. Going back to my example of the spouse's former job, if his employment in the fast food industry were a genuine conflict of interest, I probably would not have seen it because I'm too close to the issue and I'd probably feel that his place of employment and income would not affect my research outcomes. However, if we leave it up to what people perceive to be COI, then how is any researcher supposed to assess their biases and COIs when they're all too close to the issues to realize that it might be a problem? Would an editor of a journal have to sit down with every author for a few hours and discuss the researcher's private life to determine if there's any potential conflict of interest before a paper gets published?

Anyway, it's all left me very confused as to what is and is not a genuine conflict of interest.

On a completely unrelated note, if you're looking for a job in the private sector, where you run any questions or issues by HR and legal before setting out on a project outside of work, there are jobs available!

Please feel free to comment below, particularly if you can set the record straight for me on this whole COI business.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Moms4GMOs: The Movie

As you may know, a month or two ago, a group of scientists, farmers, and science-communicators, including myself, wrote a letter to a group of celebrities who were fighting against the SAFE act: a bill which would establish a voluntary labeling system for GMOs (I've written about the SAFE act here). All the celebrities, as well as the authors of the letter were moms.

Our letter explained why labeling GMOs doesn't make sense from a scientific perspective: that transgenesis or the method used to make GMOs is just one of many methods used by plant breeders to create new crop varieties. It explained that for highly processed ingredients, such as sugar or oil, there's no DNA or protein left so there's no way to tell it apart from a non-GMO ingredient, so there's no reason why it should be labeled. It outlined that most of the arguments against GMOs, such as patents, herbicide use, etc apply to crops derived from other methods as well. It concluded with a request, asking celebrities to talk with farmers and scientist, and to base their advocacy work on facts, not fears.

I'll be honest: I'm not a fan of the whole "mommy" movement. Many of the "mommy blogger" websites make a mountain out of a molehill. Of course, this is not always the case. But many of the articles on the websites remind me of Mrs Lovejoy from "The Simpsons" who goes around crying "Please, won't someone think of the children!" As we mention in the letter, being a mom doesn't make people right about whatever thing it is that they're concerned about. Undoubtedly, celebrity moms, mommy bloggers, and all moms have the very best of intentions: we're concerned about our children's welfare and well-being, but again, these concern could be misguided if not completely misinformed.

But another reason why the "mommy" movement bothers me is the tacit message that dads, or people without children, care less. I know I would have never let any harm come to my nephew before I was a mom, so should my word have carried less weight before I had my son? And in our family, my husband is the primary caregiver, so does that mean I don't #MomHarder? (That awesome phrase is from The Chowbabe). Kavin Senapathy recently described her encounter with the founder of Moms Across America, who refused to talk to an expert scientist saying: "You don’t have children. You don’t know what it’s like. You haven’t had a child come from your body." That's exactly what I do at work: before I sit down at a data review, I ask the presenter to outline his or her family planning efforts. I use this information to gauge the individual's ethical standards which I use to decide whether I should scrutinize the data more carefully.

 Given my sentiments on the topic, I find it highly ironic that a recent study found that scientists, who are also moms, are effective communicators. The Center for Food Integrity examined how to make the "public become comfortable with science and technical information." They conducted a survey and the general conclusion is that technical details and a plethora of information don't build confidence. Interestingly, they found that there were specific categories of individuals who were more effective at building trust, and that the most trusted source of information is the "Mommy Scientist".

The spouse says that I should embrace the title: that for once, the deck is stacked in my favor and towards my gender, rather than against it. I guess I'd better make the most of it, but I can't help but feel a bit miffed.

At the same time, I appreciate that perhaps the reason why our letter has resonated with so many people is the fact that many of the authors ARE "Mommy Scientists". When we wrote the letter, it didn't occur to me that seldom, if ever, had any group of moms done this: that we stood up and said, "Excuse me, but here's what the science has to say. And guess what? We're moms too, so that should balance out the mommy-factor [not that it should have mattered in the first place, in my opinion]. And quit scaring people into believing something that's not true!".

So it is perhaps because of the unique aspects of our letter that a couple has been inspired to make a documentary about "Science Moms". They have a Facebook page up right now, and they're asking anyone to share stories and anecdotes: "We would love to hear from you about your experiences as science-minded parents and science-lovers, through posts to our FaceBook page, or through messages to us on FB. Tell us why you vaccinate your children. Tell us why you support biotechnology. Tell us about some rad science experiments that you did with your kids. We want to hear it!" If you're interested in participating, head over to their page and share a blurb with them.

Who would have thunk that our shattering disillusion over Buffy's awesomeness would someday lead to a movie?

Also, I'm working on a few longer, multi-post series, which are taking some time. So I'm taking requests for posts in the interim: any articles/papers you'd like me to review? Any topics that you want me to cover? Any specific interviews for "Better Know a Scientist" or "Better Know a Farmer"? Comment below or send me an email.