Summer 2012

Heads They Win, Tails We Lose | Catalyst Summer 2012

By Michael Halpern and Peter Hansel

In his inaugural address, President Obama pledged to “restore science to its rightful place,” signaling his intent to protect science from the political interference that had become commonplace during the previous administration. The president has made notable progress in fulfilling his pledge (with guidance from UCS and our supporters), such as requiring federal agencies and departments to develop scientific integrity policies.

But the politicization of science continues. On several scientific issues, including ground-level ozone pollution and occupational exposure to toxic silica dust, the administration has caved to industry pressure. And Congress has repeatedly proposed bureaucratic hurdles that would make it far more difficult for federal scientists to protect public health and safety.

In two investigations this spring, UCS sought to determine the reasons for this ongoing pressure by asking two questions: What do corporations do to inappropriately influence the science behind federal policy? And how do they get away with it?

A Long History of Scientific Abuse

Corporate misuse of science is nothing new. Many remember when tobacco executives testified before Congress that nicotine was not addictive—despite knowing for decades the opposite was true. Peddling doubt was one effective tactic the industry used to deceive the public and delay the monitoring and regulation of its products for years.

As the case studies in our February report Heads They Win, Tails We Lose illustrate, other industries attempt to influence every step of the scientific and policy-making process in order to shape decisions in their favor and avoid regulatory oversight. Corporations have corrupted the science itself, undermined public understanding of the science, and exerted significant and undue influence over Congress, federal agencies, and the judicial system.

One issue in particular—climate change—has been a frequent target of industry efforts to create confusion and delay much-needed action. For our May report A Climate of Corporate Control, UCS looked closely at the climate-related statements and practices of 28 publicly traded companies. The findings cast light on how companies change their messages depending on the audience, and underscore the need to hold companies accountable to investors, policy makers, and the public.

We found that while some companies have taken laudable action in support of climate science and science-based policies that would combat global warming, others have aggressively worked in the opposite direction. But more disturbingly, many companies have played both sides, creating confusion by taking contradictory actions depending on the venue and audience. While cultivating a climate-concerned image in more public settings, these corporations have sown doubt about climate science both directly (e.g., challenging climate science in government filings) and indirectly (e.g., supporting politicians, trade groups, and think tanks that misrepresent climate science).

Putting Profits before Public Health

As these examples show, lives are at stake when corporations misuse science.

Vioxx. In 1999, Merck marketing teams manipulated clinical trial research on the company’s arthritis drug to hide results suggesting it increased the risk of heart attack and stroke. In addition, Merck employees anonymously wrote scientific articles about Vioxx but published them under respected scientists’ names. An FDA scientist who raised concerns faced intimidation and threats from supervisors. Vioxx earned Merck $2.5 billion in 2003, but the company voluntarily withdrew the drug in 2004, after just four years on the market. During that time, it may have caused as many as 55,000 premature deaths from heart attacks and strokes—and 100,000 unnecessary heart attacks overall—in the United States alone.

Hexavalent chromium. Ingesting or inhaling this chemical used in the production of stainless steel and textile dyes can result in severe health effects; multiple independent studies have tied the chemical to several types of cancer. Yet industries that produce hexavalent chromium have regularly downplayed that link in order to avoid regulation, and as recently as 2010, industry-commissioned studies have used deceptive statistical analysis to undermine the link.

For example, ConocoPhillips has acknowledged on its website that, “Human activity . . . is contributing to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that can lead to adverse changes in global climate.” Yet in its comments on the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 finding that carbon dioxide poses a public health threat and is subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act, the company claimed that, "The support for the effects of climate change on public health and welfare is limited and is typified by a high degree of uncertainty."

Secrecy Inhibits Accountability

Compounding the problem is the fact that companies exert their influence from behind closed doors. For example, they may withhold their own scientific research that raises doubts about the safety of their products, or secretly fund industry associations that will take more aggressive actions to undermine science than the companies feel comfortable doing themselves. Because companies do not have to disclose much of their activity, UCS was unable to undertake a comprehensive assessment of these types of activities. 

This lack of transparency and accountability makes our democracy vulnerable to commercial and political exploitation. And because commercial interests are often not aligned with the public interest, the disproportionate influence corporations have in policy discussions, including climate-related policy, harms the public good.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Inappropriate corporate influence extends its tentacles into every venue that plays a part in shaping federal policy, from the public spheres of government relations and media coverage to the more shadowy realms of think tank funding and political contributions. Solutions for reducing this influence will therefore be large-scale and complex, requiring fundamental changes in how corporations and the federal government operate and interact.

Our reports outline specific recommendations for achieving this goal. For example, companies with government contracts often benefit from public spending and should thus be required to disclose their political contributions. The Securities and Exchange Commission should also require publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending to shareholders. Congress should investigate ways to hold companies accountable for their actions, and the White House should continue to strengthen policies that protect scientists and their work from political interference. Beyond government, company shareholders can require changes in business practices that improve accountability.

Institutional changes may be difficult hurdles, but they are not insurmountable. With strong leadership and sustained commitment, both the federal government and the private sector can rise to the challenge.

Michael Halpern is a program manager in the UCS Scientific Integrity Program. Peter Hansel is an outreach intern in the program. Read more from Michael on our blog, The Equation.

Read more examples of corporate abuse and what UCS is doing to address it.