A new report by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) raises serious concerns regarding potential conflicts of interest in the European Commission’s Scientific Committees. Looking at four recent case studies – parabens, nano titanium dioxide, nano-silver and mercury – CEO discovered that 67 per cent of the scientists who drafted opinions had at least one conflict of interest. Some had as many as 20 – due to their direct and indirect links with affected industries. Conflicts included working in a consultative/advisory role for industry, research funding, employment, ownership of shares or other investments and intellectual property rights

The Scientific Committees of the European Commission include the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), the Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER) and the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR). Between them they assess the risk to humans and the environment of chemicals found in a huge range of everyday items, from shampoo to baby bottles. These opinions guide European Commission regulators, who decide which chemicals are safe and at what levels – and which should be banned. The failure to adequately regulate such chemicals could potentially cause great harm to human health and the environment.

These expert opinions may also have a huge impact on the bottom line of businesses that make and sell products that contain them. A negative opinion on a certain chemical could lead to a Commission / EU ban, costing industry millions. Powerful interests are working to avoid such scenarios. Therefore the independence of risk assessors and their ability to act in the public interest are paramount.

The four chemical case studies looked at in the CEO report are highly controversial: they are suspected of interfering with the body’s hormonal system (parabens); causing DNA damage (nano titanium dioxide); affecting the nervous system development of the unborn child (dental mercury); and aiding the spread of ‘super bugs’ (nano-silver). Yet all four have been on the market for many years, are widely used by some of the world’s biggest corporations in hundreds of products, creating considerable revenues. So are the opinions behind the regulation of these potentially hazardous chemicals of the highest quality and free from industry influence? Many public interest groups have argued no, while research on the European Commission’s European Food Safety Authority has highlighted the close ties many members have with the industries they are supposed to be regulating.

By far the most common conflicts of interest found were working in a consultative/advisory role for industry. In practice this means direct payment to the expert – or in some cases their research institution – for services to those companies whose products were regulated as a result of Scientific Committee opinions. Other conflicts included research funding, employment, ownership of shares or other investments and intellectual property rights.
Conflicts of interest included links to well-known corporations such as pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline – accused by the editor of the Lancet of distorting the results of scientific research for commercial profits; chemical behemoth DuPont – notorious for its lobbying against stronger regulation of greenhouse gases, among other things; and Unilever – a global producer of cosmetics and processed foods, and keenly interested in biocides with a track record of lobbying against regulation globally.

One of the authors of the SCENIHR opinion on nano-silver, who was brought in as an external expert, was found to have serious conflicts of interest. Since 2010, they have signed ten consultancy contracts with private companies, including L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, GAMA Healthcare, Tristel, and 3M. All of these companies are actively involved in the infection control/health sector – where nano-silver is commonly used for its antimicrobial properties.

One of these companies, 3M has numerous nano-silver related patents, giving it a clear interest in the outcome of the opinion, while Proctor & Gamble (P&G) sells products that incorporate nano-silver. P&G has been accused of attempting to influence and manipulate scientific research, and last year spent over $4 million lobbying in the US and between €4m-€4.5m lobbying in the EU.

The scientist in question also received research funding from Unilever, Steris, and GAMA Healthcare – again, companies with an active interest in nano-silver and any risk assessments which may impact regulation. While the money from these companies went to the scientist’s employer, rather than the actual scientist, this is no less problematic. The work itself was still done directly for industry. This highlights the growing problem of universities demanding that researchers look for corporate funding and engage in private contracting to raise funds.

Despite the scientist’s declaration of interests they were still deemed suitable to serve as an external SCENIHR expert on several occasions.

At first glance the European Commission’s independence policy looks robust – not only do the rules state that scientists should be independent, but they should also free from all forms of bias, including intellectual. It also includes a cooling-off period of five years between working for industry and working for a Committee on that topic, which is commendable.

However, CEO argue that when deciding what is and isn’t a conflict of interest the European Commission’s policy is overly narrow. Interests, i.e. ties to industry, are only judged to be a conflict if directly related to the experts’ role for the scientific committee or working group. For example, if an expert wrote a report for industry claiming a controversial chemical was completely safe, working on that chemical for the scientific committees would be considered a conflict. However, the expert would be able to assess another chemical which the report didn’t cover, but which was still produced by the same company.

This is because the European Commission assumes that, unless the expert is in a position to actively exploit the conflict by, for example, consciously skewing findings in favour of industry because they have a financial interest to do so, then the conflict can be managed. This position fails to understand the different and often insidious ways in which conflicts of interest can influence scientists.

Studies have revealed a strong correlation between financial ties with industry and pro-industry research outcomes. Industry funding – which does not have to be related to the particular area of work in question – leads to an increased probability of the production of pro-industry conclusions, biased interpretations of data, and even obstruction of the publication of negative outcomes. Social scientists have also found that a ‘sense of indebtedness’ towards the financial interest can cause further bias, known as double loyalty. This may not even be conscious move: most studies conclude that a conflict of interest often results from an unintentional bias rather than from intended dishonesty.

This kind of regulatory capture was pioneered by the tobacco industry and is the most prevalent form of industry influence. The European Commission has not taken this form of industry influence into consideration and designs its independence policy solely around the possibility of corrupt individuals intentionally distorting science for personal gain.

CEO is calling for the European Commission to create a broader definition and accompanying guidelines for conflicts of interest that cover the entire remit of the Scientific Committees and to outsource their screening for conflicts of interest to an independent body.

Whilst the CEO report focuses on the European Commission’s Scientific Committees, these problems are by no means confined to Europe. If anything, the problem of regulatory capture by industry is even more pronounced in Australia than it is in Europe.