Although occupational and environmental diseases are often viewed as isolated and unique failures of science, the government, or industry to protect the best interest of the public, they are in fact an outcome of a pervasive system of corporate priority setting, decision making, and influence. This system produces disease because political, economic, regulatory and ideological norms prioritise values of wealth and profit over human health and environmental well-being.
Science is a key part of this system; there is a substantial tradition of manipulation of evidence, data, and analysis, ultimately designed to maintain favorable conditions for industry at both material and ideological levels. To the extent that science is carried out by and for corporations, it becomes subject to the corporate logic of profit maximisation.
Corporations have much at stake when the safety of their products is put to scientific test, and spend hundreds of billions on research each year worldwide. Industry-funded research takes place in a variety of formats and venues, including universities, corporate laboratories, and science-for-hire firms that conduct research for corporate clients.
The extent of corporate-funded science is troubling because history shows a substantial tradition of manipulation of evidence, data, and analysis, ultimately designed to maintain favorable conditions for industry, at both material and ideological levels.
Skip Spitzer observes that corporations “largely ignore social and environmental costs,” chiefly through externalising them, or shifting costs to governments, neighbors, or workers. As economist Robert Monks has put it, a corporation “tends to be more profitable to the extent it can make other people pay the bills for its impact on society.”
For example, when a company emits air and water pollution, it externalises the costs of cleanup (or clean production), shifting expenses to the public who may get sick, be forced to pay for cleanup, or pay for damages in indirect ways. If a company can avoid paying these true costs of the manufacture and use of its products, its profits are enhanced and it has an economic advantage over its more socially responsible or regulated competitors.
Since these costs are often large, they provide large incentives for companies to avoid them by influencing the regulatory process or by moving production to nations with less-effective regulatory regimes, often in the developing world. The corporate practices that externalise occupational and environmental costs are countered by social standards for health and safety, embodied in national or international regulation and/or worker and consumer movements.
To counter or prevent regulation and citizen movements and maintain their ability to maximise profit, corporations actively engage in the making of public opinion. Science is a powerful tool in affecting social standards, and is often used by industry in hopes of influencing public and regulatory acceptance of a particular industry, process, or product.
However, when science functions as a tool to affect public opinion or labor or environmental regulation, it does not function as a value-free arena of neutral inquiry, but is subject to influence by the corporate goal of profit maximisation.
In any case, corporations use several strategies not only in the production of scientific studies that are favorable to them, but also in the communication of those studies to audiences that are important in public decision making, such as lawmakers and juries. While such communication is often not thought of as part of the scientific process per se, it is a key part of the corporate use of science.
Corporate strategies in the production of science and the communication of science are interlinked, and are both extremely important to consider in a critical evaluation of the corporate corruption of science.
Corporate strategies for the production of science
By the “production” of science, we mean the processes involved in posing questions and making hypotheses, planning and carrying out studies, drawing conclusions from data, reviewing and analysing other scientists’ work, and so on.
This is essentially the day-to-day work of toxicologists, epidemiologists, physicians, and basic scientists (molecular biologists and others). Corporations may influence scientific production when they run their own development or toxicology laboratories, or when they pay universities or private firms to carry out research for them. This influence can be seen in subtle or overt ways. Sometimes, reasonable, honest, and competent scientists can differ, and corporations will fund, utilise, or depend on the science that is more favorable to their products, often because it seems the most “reasonable” to them.
Kjaergard and Als-Neilsen and Als-Neilson et al. found that of scientists conducting randomised clinical trials of therapeutic interventions, those with corporate funding were significantly more likely to favour the intervention than researchers without such funding.
As Sheldon Krimsky has shown, universities and university scientists are increasingly involved in venture capital enterprises based on scientific research and development, leaving both institution and individual with deep conflicts of interest.
Sometimes, deeply embedded beliefs about a material’s or an industry’s safety leads to scientific bias. Other times, though, scientists and others consciously use faulty science to craft a rationale for a minimum level of health and environmental protections.
Perhaps the easiest way to downplay the negative health impact of a dangerous substance is to simply fail to publish studies that demonstrate that impact. For example, Jock McColloch describes how the Canadian asbestos industry failed to publish their data that showed Quebec asbestos miners incurred high rates of asbestosis and other health problems.
In fact, Canadian asbestos companies publicly claimed for decades that Canadian miners did not suffer from asbestosis. It is the industry’s careful “management of medical knowledge,” writes McColloch, that “has been the key to the continued use of asbestos.” While McCulloch demonstrates the manipulation of science within particular industries, these strategies are in fact used again and again to manufacture a clean bill of health for hazardous products.
Valerio Gennaro and Lorenzo Tomatis describe a number of strategies corporate-funded epidemiologic studies can use that will “almost invariably lead to negative results.” The authors present 15 strategies, including: the creation of a dilution effect by comparing all workers with an unexposed control group instead of comparing exposed with unexposed workers; failing to control for the healthy-worker effect; considering exposure to only one substance; and failing to build in adequate follow-up periods when studying diseases (such as cancer) with long latency periods.
Corporate strategies for the communication of science
In order for science to help ensure a favorable climate for corporate profit maximisation, it must influence public opinion.
Corporate science is often undertaken with an essentially political purpose: to minimise regulation and influence the beliefs of workers, consumers, and jury members. Regulation at the national level is often the main obstacle to the externalisation of corporate profits.
The regulatory apparatus can require industry to dispose of waste safely, limit worker exposures to toxins, and ensure that consumer products are safe, among other things. In the United States, there has been a movement against regulation since at least the mid-1970s.
Business interests have successfully argued that regulation costs jobs, stunts innovation, and harms the economy. Using targeted campaign contributions, focused lobbying, and other tactics, US corporations exert considerable influence on the regulatory process. Due to the economic and political power of the US, this under-regulation puts enormous pressure on other countries to do likewise.
Jennifer Sass’s and Peter Infante’s commentaries on butadiene regulation at the US EPA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) demonstrate the techniques industry uses to influence regulation, and the success of those techniques in the US regulatory sphere. Sass shows problems with industry influence on butadiene scientific panels at both the EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
At the EPA, an industry-heavy science advisory board (SAB) persuaded the EPA to base its estimate of butadiene cancer potency on a weak study that lacked individual exposure data, was likely to have misclassified exposure levels, and counted only deaths from leukemia, not living leukemia cases.
At the IARC, a vote to classify 1,3-butadiene as a human carcinogen was reversed in an extraordinary second vote that reclassified the chemical as a “probable human carcinogen.” Peter Infante shows how a similar reclassification took place at OSHA, where, despite clear evidence of elevated rates of lymphohematopoietic cancer due to workplace benzene exposure, the agency declined to pass a more stringent standard on its own, but rather arranged for industry and labor representatives to come to an agreement on the standard.
While industry agreed to the OSHA-suggested standard, industry representatives also convinced the agency to downgrade the classification of butadiene to a “probable human carcinogen” rather than a “human carcinogen.” The end result was a classification based on negotiation rather than science; and one that could wrongly assuage workers’ fears and negatively affect workers applying for compensation for lymphohematopoietic cancer.
On an international level, free-trade agreements negotiated through the World Trade Organisation (WTO), bilateral agreements such as NAFTA, and the structural adjustment programs imposed on many developing countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have sometimes militated against national labor and environmental regulation.
Free-trade agreements can also mean that national health, safety, and environmental regulations characterised as restrictive of trade can open national governments to expensive suits under agreements such as NAFTA, which can have a chilling effect on regulation in general.
The current export-oriented development model has also meant that there is immense pressure on nations to deregulate; multinational corporations have their pick of nations in which to invest or manufacture, and can choose the nation with the least restrictive rules. A weaker regulatory environment often translates into expanded profit margin, but has not been accompanied by rising standards of living for people in most cases.
While the regulatory apparatus is a key target for corporations interested in defending the safety or healthfulness of their product, industry also works to convince a much larger group of people of the safety of their products. This group includes workers, consumers, and jury members. The opinions on health and environment related matters of many jury members, consumers, and workers are not formed through the consideration of scientific data or materials per se, but rather through the myriad ways that information is received by them in their day-to-day life.
People receive knowledge about health and hazards from a variety of sources. For corporations engaged in the production of harmful substances, using those sources to influence public knowledge is key to maintaining profitability and protecting against legal losses. Michael Jacobson shows one way corporate entities spread their message of safety. Many trusted and well-known organisations, such as the American Heart Association, which are widely perceived as providing or disseminating objective scientific information, are substantially supported by corporate groups.
Jacobson shows how professional organisations, university research institutes, health charities, and other nonprofit groups that receive corporate funding may be limited or influenced by their corporate sponsors; and how some organisations that seem independent are in fact created and controlled by industry.
We note that this corporate strategy extends to the international sphere: as Nicholas Ashford et al. have shown, the International Commission on Occupational Health, which bills itself as an “international non-governmental professional society whose aims are to foster the scientific progress, knowledge and development of occupational health and safety in all its aspects,” is in fact dominated by multinational corporate interests.
ICOH has sought to strengthen its ties with international bodies such as the ILO and the WHO in order to influence international health guidelines and policy, but has failed to be up front about the fact that most of its members represent the interests of industry. Corporate campaigns to influence public opinion may not address the health effects of a product or process per se, but may work to make that product or process seem indispensable to protect jobs, maintain an adequate standard of living, or achieve some other social or economic good.
For example, Monsanto has used a variety of strategies to claim that its products (first pesticides and then genetically-modified foods) are not only safe, but beneficial to both the environment and economic growth, while at the same time foreclosing critiques of these technologies as dangerous and environmentally unsound.
We believe the problems of the corporate corruption of science must be addressed not only at the material level, but at the ideological level as well. To many, corporate power now seems natural and beneficial. The dubbing of economic neoliberalism as “free trade,” for example, sums up a whole set of benefits the economic model is supposed to provide, while obscuring the negative social, cultural, and economic aspects of the neoliberal program, which in fact has resulted in increasing inequality both within individual nations and on regional and global levels.
In the face of the power of corporate capitalism to define itself in positive terms, we must work on constraining corporate abuses while developing a new way of thinking about the role of the corporation. We must act as citizens to pass reforms that hold corporations and corporate-funded scientists accountable for the quality of their work.
We should support funding for research on key areas in occupational and environmental health that are not being addressed by status quo science. And we should work with schools and community groups to foster scientifically-literate citizen action for healthier workplaces, communities, and natural environments.
Finally, we should work across borders, building a global network to address shared occupational and environmental health harms from both an activist and a scientific perspective. The corporate corruption of science is a real threat to the health and well-being of people and the environment the world over. Such a problem deserves a concerted response.
David S. Egilman and Susanna Rankin Bohme
This is an edited version of a longer article that was originally published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.