Uncertain Harvest: Scientists Loved and Loathed by an Agrochemical Giant

Uncertain Harvest: Scientists Loved and Loathed by an Agrochemical Giant

- in World Biz

Today, Dr. Cresswell has returned to less controversial areas of bee research. He said he respects scientists he met from Syngenta, but views collaboration with industry as a Faustian bargain.

He called Syngenta “a kind of devil.”

“What I didn’t realize is that supping with them would actually have a broader impact on how the world sees me as a scientist,” he said. “That was my misjudgment.”

A Tangled Relationship

If some scientists struggle to reconcile themselves with taking corporate money, others embrace complex business relationships.

James W. Simpkins, a professor at West Virginia University and the director of its Center for Basic and Translational Stroke Research, is one of the many outside academics that Syngenta turns to for research.

He has focused on the Syngenta product atrazine — the second most popular weed killer in America, widely used on lawns and crops — often co-authoring research with Syngenta scientists.

Atrazine, banned in the European Union, has also been controversial in America. Most notably, Syngenta embarked on a campaign to discredit Tyrone B. Hayes, a professor it once funded at the University of California, Berkeley, until Dr. Hayes found that atrazine changes the sex of frogs.

Dr. Simpkins has had a different relationship with the company. In 2003, he appeared before American regulators on Syngenta’s behalf, saying that “we can identify no biologically plausible mechanism by which atrazine leads to an increase in prostate cancer.”

Dr. Simpkins was also lead author of a 2011 study finding no support that atrazine causes breast cancer. And last year, he was part of a small team of Syngenta-backed scientists that fought California’s move to require atrazine be sold with a warning label. He also recently edited a series of papers on atrazine for Syngenta, garnering praise from a senior researcher at the company, Charles Breckenridge, who wrote in an email that the “papers tell a simple, yet compelling story.”

The depth of the financial intertwining of Dr. Simpkins and Syngenta was laid out in nearly 2,000 pages of email traffic, obtained by The Times following a Freedom of Information Act request. Not only does Dr. Simpkins receive research grants, but the company also pays him $250-an-hour as a consultant for his work on expert panels, studies and manuscripts, records show. Syngenta even asked Dr. Simpkins to contribute to Dr. Breckenridge’s annual performance review.

Asking outsiders to contribute to corporate reviews is not unusual. However, Dr. Simpkins is also described in the emails as a partner in a venture set up by Dr. Breckenridge called Quality Scientific Solutions to consult on pesticides and other issues.

West Virginia University’s website says that “Research conducted at W.V.U. is data-driven, objective and independent” and “not influenced by any political agenda, business priority” or “funding source.” And John A. Bolt, a spokesman for the university, said all of Dr. Simpkins’s Syngenta-related research had been conducted before Dr. Simpkins arrived at West Virginia in 2012.

Angelika Hilbeck, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in a lab at the North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. The agrochemical industry has long challenged her research, and she has been outspoken in fighting back.

Joao Silva/The New York Times

But a review of Dr. Simpkins’s published work shows that he co-authored favorable atrazine studies with Syngenta scientists in 2014 and 2015, and listed his university affiliation. Mr. Bolt said Dr. Simpkins only “served as an expert adviser” in the studies.

In 2014, Syngenta made a $30,000 donation to the university’s foundation. Mr. Bolt said that donation was made “in general support of the research activities of Dr. James W. Simpkins.” None of the money, Mr. Bolt said, was “used to support research related to Syngenta.”

Dr. Simpkins’s collaborations with Dr. Breckenridge appear to be expansive. In an email to Dr. Simpkins last year, Dr. Breckenridge sent him a study on the Mediterranean Diet and suggested they use a multilevel marketing company to help them sell a product of their own.

“If we could come up with a better Snake Oil,” he wrote to Dr. Simpkins, “we would have access to a massive marketing force.”

A Critic and a Target

Some scientists labor outside the industry. It can be a difficult path.

Angelika Hilbeck worked for Agroscope, a Swiss agricultural research center, in the 1990s, when she began to examine genetically modified corn. The corn was designed to kill insect larvae that fed on it, but Dr. Hilbeck found it was also toxic to an insect called the lacewing, a useful bug that eats other pests.

Ciba-Geigy, a predecessor of Syngenta, had a confidentiality agreement with Agroscope, and insisted she keep the research secret, she said. Confidentiality agreements are not unusual for Agroscope. In one such agreement obtained by The Times, the agency agreed to return or destroy corporate documents it received as part of a research project.

Dr. Hilbeck said she refused to back down and eventually published her work. Her contract at Agroscope was not renewed. An Agroscope spokeswoman said the episode took place too long ago to comment on.

Dr. Hilbeck continued as a university researcher and was succeeded at Agroscope by Jörg Romeis, a scientist who had worked at Bayer and has since co-authored research with employees from Syngenta, DuPont and other companies. He has spent much of his career attempting to debunk Dr. Hilbeck’s work. He followed her lacewing studies by co-authoring his own, finding that genetically modified crops were not harmful to the lacewing.

Next, after Dr. Hilbeck co-authored a paper outlining a model for assessing the unintended risks of such crops, Dr. Romeis was lead author of an alternative approach with a Syngenta scientist among his co-authors.

Then, in 2009, Dr. Hilbeck co-authored a paper looking at risks to ladybug larvae from modified crops. Dr. Romeis followed by co-authoring a study that found “no adverse effects” to ladybird larvae. In subsequent publications, he referred to work by Dr. Hilbeck and others as “bad science” and a “myth.”

“They were my little stalkers,” Dr. Hilbeck said. “Whatever I did, they did.”

In an interview, Dr. Romeis, who now leads Agroscope’s biosafety research group, said, “Her work does not affect our mission in any way,” adding that the idea of researching the effects of genetically modified crops was “not patented by her.”

Refereeing a scientific dispute is difficult. But Dr. Romeis and his collaborators do seem preoccupied with Dr. Hilbeck’s work, judging from a review of email traffic between Agroscope and the U.S.D.A. obtained by The Times following a Freedom of Information Act request.

In 2014, as Dr. Romeis was developing a paper assailing Dr. Hilbeck’s work, one U.S.D.A. scientist, Steven E. Naranjo, joked in a message to Dr. Romeis: “Joerg, its generous of you to see that Hilbeck gets published once in a while :)”

Dr. Hilbeck is used to looking over her shoulder. “We shouldn’t be running into all kinds of obstacles and face all this comprehensive mobbing just doing what we’re supposed to do,” she said. “It’s totally corrupted this field.”

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