The Risk-Monger

In the last blog, I presented a document showing how the IUCN Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides (TFSP) was created on a rather unscientific motivation: to advance the campaign to ban neonicotinoid pesticides. This is what I have referred to as activist science – a politically motivated endeavour of putting the conclusions before the evidence for the purpose of advancing an activist campaign. In this blog, I will examine this group of anti-neonic scientists, how they publish and push their work and how they are funded. It will be interesting to see how, with their agenda-driven (and non-transparent) financial sources, they can still consider themselves as free from conflict of interest.

Peer Review?

The IUCN Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides has demonstrated how activist scientists can exploit the weaknesses in the peer review process. The group is set up like a private club of like-minded researchers who publish articles citing each other and recommending each other to peer review their papers. See a good example of how they promote themselves (amongst themselves) in a recent contribution by Hank Campbell in Science 2.0 (and read the eye-opening discussion section). If one needs any further proof of how this taskforce confirms their bias among themselves, look at the list of references at the end of the “high-impact” concluding publication. Of the total of 14 sources, 10 were to articles from the same very authors of the report. Was there really so little other credible science out there that they had to keep referencing themselves?

We must keep in mind that the IUCN taskforce has not generated new research, but is merely an extensive literature review (literature reviews are a notoriously subjective process given the volume of articles that could be omitted by the pre-determined selection criteria), so if they are citing each other regularly, then it should not come as a surprise that in any literature review, their own works might take pride of place.

Also in a closed circle of peers, after repeating the same things to each other, it is normal to share a certain confirmation bias. Notice the contributions in the comments sections from the IUCN taskforce scientists who engaged Hank Campbell or my last post – they were regularly inciting the high probability of apocalyptic biodiversity collapse. While I am sure they truly believe that this is a crisis of epic proportions, nobody else in the scientific community is speaking like that. This is a common risk when polarised scientists stay within their comfort silos.

Some curious things about this above-mentioned and long-awaited “high impact” publication.

  • It was sadly neither published in Science nor Nature (as the 2010 anti-neonic strategy document had expected), but instead, the journal of Environmental Science and Pollution Research. Rather than being in the upper echelon of scientific publications, this tepid, dare I say mediocre journal is an open-source, pay-per-publish service (it has an Impact Factor of 2.76 – for comparison, Science has an Impact Factor of 31.48 and Nature has 42.35 – Impact Factor, to simplify, is based on the average number of citations each article receives). Environmental Science and Pollution Research’s publisher, Springer (along with IEEE), recently had to retract 120 articles from open-source journals for being computer-generated gibberish. Was this high impact paper even subjected to a peer review?
  • The peer review process at Environmental Science and Pollution Research turned this IUCN taskforce paper into a high-impact publication in an eye-popping six days from reception. Sorry, but even the Risk-Monger’s blogs take longer to fact-check (and he is far from high impact!).
  • The conclusions at the end of this scientific publication include such knowledge sharing recommendations as: we must grow more organic food; “educate” farmers that pesticides do not work (no farmers were involved in this research evidently); and use the precautionary principle to ban neonicotinoids. Was this high-impact article even fact-checked?

The sad thing today is that nobody in government agencies or the media read anymore. They just see a series of letters after someone’s name and a long list of publications and they assume that these activist scientists are legitimate enough upon which to base policies and news articles.

Who are the IUCN Taskforce activist scientists?

It may seem strange that the website promoting this IUCN taskforce does not actually present the members of the taskforce. I contacted the Taskforce Science Coordinator and got a reply (from someone else) that the 30 authors of the high-impact publication are indeed the members of the Taskforce (although in a letter where the Taskforce Chairman requested if his group could join the UN, he mentioned 49 members). Other bee scientists have asked to join this IUCN taskforce but have been informed that it is not open to new members. I suppose trying to present a scientific consensus against neonicotinoids is too important to risk allowing other scientists with opposing views to be involved. So as we are to understand that these 30 members are the best scientists in the field of bee research, it shouldn’t be unexpected that someone should take a look at some of their accreditations, expertise and achievements.

I should begin by noting that many of the scientists on the TFSP are credible researchers who have had a long history of research on bees, bee field trials and studies on various causes of possible bee decline apart from neonicotinoids. But not all of them and not the most apparently active or vocal ones.

The IUCN Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides’ Scientific Coordinator is Dr Jeroen van der Sluijs. This might be considered a strange choice for some as Dr van der Sluijs does not have a long history of bee research or field trials. I have to wonder if he has led any field trials. On his Twitter page, he lists his interests as: Post Normal Science, scientific controversy, scientific uncertainty, emerging risks, science & ethics, NUSAP, science policy interface. No bees mentioned at all. In an interview van der Sluijs gave to Friends of the Earth in the Netherlands, he was presented as someone who seems to have done everything – nuclear scientist, expert on climate change, expert on electromagnetic fields, on bees and now he has just moved from Utrecht to Bergen, Norway to become a professor in ethics and science. For someone under the age of 50, his CV is laced with an incredible number of publications, but one has to wonder how deep he has been able to delve into the subject of bee research to become the Scientific Coordinator of a major international taskforce dealing with such a complex subject. That he changes specialisation so often has to be questioned. Just because the Risk-Monger has a PhD, does not mean that tomorrow he is going to get up and become a brain surgeon. Sorry but if the major IUCN Taskforce publications are to have a lead author, he bloody well better be the best expert in the research field. Dr van der Sluijs has now moved to Norway to specialise in “post-normal science” (worth a blog some day as I am not a precaution-hugger, but post-normal science is essentially trying to broaden the scope of uncertainty considerations to embrace non-scientific aspects within scientific assessments). I suspect that that bees and neonics is just another application of his work on uncertainty and risk and he will soon find something else to challenge him.

Dr Dave Goulson is the honey of the activist bee science community, giving interviews to NGOs and organic food media services wherever and whenever he can. This leads to a lot of crumbs to follow up and many questionable statements, such as how he explained to Friends of the Earth Canada that farmers don’t know what they are doing when they use neonicotinoids (claiming that they don’t work at all) and that farmers need to be properly educated (as a person who grew up on a farm, the Risk-Monger has expressed his views on that in a previous blog). He also recently wrote that if farmers in the UK cannot grow oilseed rape (canola) without using neonicotinoids, then they had better plant something else (note that, until the massive losses this year due to the EU neonic ban, oilseed rape had been the third largest crop in the UK and is a rich source of pollen). Dr Goulson has no doubt expressed his love for bees in his books for the general public, but his lack of understanding of farmers’ concerns and farming in general is highly compromising.

Taskforce member, Vanessa Amaral-Rogers, has been a campaign officer at Buglife for two years. She received her MSc in 2011 in Conservation Biology but does not seem to have any publications on research topics outside of her work on three of the IUCN reports. Buglife is a UK-based NGO that is committed to conservation of invertebrate species. One of the missions of Buglife is: “Assisting in the development of legislation and policy that will ensure the conservation of invertebrates.” It is unclear what the role of an NGO lobbyist is on the IUCN taskforce, but in any other situation, that would be considered a conflict of interest.

No Conflict of Interest?

Conflict of interest, as a concept, is very simple. If you are paid by an organisation that has a stated agenda or objective, and you then are working in another function where that interest or agenda may influence your decision-making, then you have a conflict of interest. Buglife has an agenda that includes shaping policy (lobbying) so their presence on the TFSP does imply a conflict of interest (if we are to assume that the scientific research would be made available to policymakers in an objective, independent manner). Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against their views (as a vegetarian, I think they should be campaigning harder to stop the trend in insect sources for human dietary protein), but any conflict of interest needs to be declared. If pesticide industry scientists were on a scientific taskforce, so many activist groups would be screaming conflict of interest and demanding their withdrawal.

But a larger question to be asked is whether the funding sources of the IUCN Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides implies a wider conflict of interest. Most of the TFSP publications, like the concluding high impact article, include a statement: “The authors declare no conflict of interest”, but then they end with the following acknowledgements:

The work has been funded by the Triodos Foundation’s Support Fund for Independent Research on Bee Decline and Systemic Pesticides. This support fund has been created from donations by Adessium Foundation (The Netherlands), Act Beyond Trust (Japan), Utrecht University (Netherlands), Stichting Triodos Foundation (The Netherlands), Gesellschaft fuer Schmetterlingsschutz (Germany), M.A.O.C. Gravin van Bylandt Stichting (The Netherlands), Zukunft Stiftung Landwirtschaft (Germany), Study Association Storm (Student Association Environmental Sciences Utrecht University), Deutscher Berufs- und Erwerbsimkerbund e. V. (Germany), Gemeinschaft der europäischen Buckfastimker e. V. (Germany) and citizens. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

The last line has a familiar ring to it. We often see it at the end of industry-funded studies, and nobody believes that these studies are not in some way conflicted. Such research studies are usually prefaced with the diminishing adjective: “industry-funded”. So why do we not object when activist or agenda-driven groups fund researchers or preface such studies as: “activist financed”. In a world where NGOs are splashing out more money on research to support their campaign, this double standard needs to be addressed. Truth is that in a world where research costs are beyond university budgets and governments have stepped back due to austerity measures, very little research today does not entail some sort of funding carrying an attached or implied conflict of interest. To stand steadfast and insist that one source of funding smells better than the other (because you agree with their campaign more) is just pitiful hypocrisy.

Who is funding the TFSP?

So what are the motives or agenda of the organisations funding the research budget of the IUCN TFSP? It is largely two-fold: promote organic food and farming and reduce the influence of industry and globalisation. Would these funding organisations continue to finance the Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides if the researchers gave neonicotinoids a clean bill of health and found that bee health issues are more related to electromagnetic fields and our use of mobile phones? That money would dry up like a stone.

The initial seed funding came from the Triodos Foundation, a Dutch registered charity tied to the Triodos banking group that has been active in supporting and financing organic food producers and farmers.

Triodos Foundation’s aim is to stimulate national and international initiatives that instigate social renewal, especially in organic farming, development, the environment, sustainable energy, art and culture, education and health care.

But on their Dutch website, they get into more details on how industry lobbying needs to be countered by independent science, justifying having established a capital source for what was to become the IUCN taskforce in order to get these toxic chemicals off the market (See in Dutch).

Triodos started a fund to accept further donations, not just from individuals and clients of the bank, but other large organisations. This is known as the Support Fund for Independent Research on Bee Decline and Systemic Pesticides and it includes other foundations and NGOs with similar agendas. The Adessium Foundation (founded by the Dutch investment banking Van Vliet family) for example, is the main funder of the anti-industry attack group, Corporate Europe Observatory. “act beyond trust” was founded by the former executive director of Greenpeace Japan and is running an anti-neonic campaign. On their website they state that: Given that advocacy campaigning is yet to gain recognition and momentum in the Japanese society, ‘act beyond trust’ focuses on advocacy campaigns and supports them by providing financial help, strategic advice, technical assistance and practical training. The Zukunft Stiftung Landwirtschaft is a banking foundation (again) supporting organic agriculture and campaigns against Monsanto in Germany.

These groups are obviously giving money for a reason, and the scientists receiving these funds cannot pretend that this does not have an influence on their research objectives. Or perhaps these foundations found the right scientists who would agree with them (explaining why certain other bee scientists were not permitted to join the TFSP).

Transparency and reputation

But how much money have they given to this anti-neonic taskforce? That I do not know because these organisations are not at all transparent. The last IUCN financial statement gave general numbers and did not mention the funding amounts for their taskforces. On the European Transparency Register, Triodos declared that they spend and donate €0.00 on EU lobbying. By creating an umbrella group (the Support Fund), I suppose neither Triodos nor the taskforce have to declare their financial transfers in public under the lax Dutch NGO legislation. Seriously, shouldn’t banks have learnt by now how to be transparent.I have publicly asked a member of the IUCN taskforce for the details of their funding and have received no reply. Imagine a situation where industry did that? Would we be OK with that or would the complaints reach the highest levels? Once again, double standards.

I sometimes wonder what the IUCN thinks of all of this. They had previously been a respectable organisation with a high degree of due diligence and impartiality. Reading an article on this topic in Forbes, the journalist, Paul Rodgers, received the following statement from the IUCN:

The IUCN insisted last night that it had not taken a position on neonicotinoids and said that the conversation reported in the memo was based on existing scientific evidence at the time.

Given the 2010 strategy document, the conflicts of interest with the nature of the funders, the issues around how the reports were published and some of the scientists involved, I think it is wise that the IUCN is taking a step back to protect its reputation.

I agree with Matt Ridley, who in his recent comment on what is becoming known as Bee-gate, acknowledged that an overwhelming majority of researchers are doing good, credible science and that we, as a society, benefit from their work. But because the few can do so much damage to the reputation of the many, there is a strong need to protect the public trust in credible science. The Risk-Monger would like urge the bee science community (many of whom contacted me this last week) to stand up and prevent activist scientists from taking the lead in dictating what the science on bee issues is or is not. They are not only discrediting the work of credible scientists, but also further damaging the reputation of science in the public mind. By targeting their focus on one potential part of a complex issue, and then campaigning relentlessly, they are also not helping the situation of the bees. This is the most shameful part – that activists have succeeded in banning these pesticides in the EU, leaving clueless officials in Brussels feeling confident that they have solved the bee problem.

It should not come down to some blogger living in a village outside of Brussels to point out the obvious limitations and intentions present in this IUCN taskforce. It is not enough to shout these activists down at conferences or run circles around them in journal discussions. If this group, backed by activist cash and PR machines, can achieve a perception of scientific leadership, it would not be surprising to find some of these activist scientists sitting on government working groups and writing risk assessments that find their way into policy that affects farmers, the environment and the direction of further bee research.

That, regrettably, will be the sorry subject of the third and final blog on this topic (to be published in the next week).

… To be continued.

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  1. The EU Referendum blog states:

    « And, as acknowledged here, the EU funded the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, to the tune of €431,337, in three equal tranches of €143,779 over the period 2011-13. »

    The link there is wrong.

    Would you have more information?

    The link, by the way, was to a memo produced on the occasion of the publication of the EPILOBEE results. Which results tended to show that bees did not fare that badly in the EU in 2012-13… despite the neonics one might add.

    1. Thank you for this information. Wow … I would be surprised if the EU funded the IUCN anti-neonic taskforce for €430,000 (that would have to go through FP7 or Horizon 2020 and they have a fairly good evaluation process to identify legitimate proposals) – I suspect that may be funds for the IUCN in general (from DG Environment which does little scrutiny or due diligence in its distribution to NGOs via Life+), but I will follow it up (I am overwhelmed by the amount of information that keeps landing on my desk). The neonic ban in France, as the link you provided demonstrated, was anything but scientific. Hollande needed the support of the far left and greens (so screw the farmers!). Then again, the European Commission’s precautionary ban on neonicotinoids was also anything but scientific – as the head of the chemicals unit in DG Sanco said earlier this year, the neonic ban would not make any difference to bee health, but given the intractable problems facing the bees (climate, biodiversity loss, monocultures, …) pesticides was the only thing the Commission could legislate on – see: for a frank admission of bureaucratic futility. So the European Commission decides to look busy by banning three neonicotinoids and because of the crop losses, we will now be chopping down more forests and ploughing more meadows. Mystifying!
      I should correct some errors I have seen in the discussions over the last week. The IUCN taskforce was not involved in the EU precautionary ban – they hadn’t done anything before June of this year. The ban was based on a report provided by the EFSA Bee Risk Assessment Working Group (as we’ll see in the next blog, they have their own set of activist scientists!). But the IUCN taskforce’s publications are aimed at getting the US to ban neonicotinoids (Obama has opened up a consultation) so there you can find the political import and timing.
      As you noticed, the mainstream and legitimate bee science position was expressed in the EPILOBEE report (not that anyone in Sanco probably read it since they have not revoked the ban or settled with the crop protection companies). It gathered hundreds of bee specialists from across the EU (I did not see any of the 30 IUCN taskforce specialists on the list) and the conclusion was that cold winters were the main threat to bees (as well as varroa mite and loss of habitat). Yes, cold winters, habitats and viruses – neonicotinoids would be a mere scratch on bee health while the mainstream science recognised weather, mites and biodiversity as the limb amputations.
      So what are we doing today still talking about neonics, making the farmers suffer, pushing up food prices and creating food security issues??? I have said it too many times in this blog: People are stupid!

  2. Many thanks for your reply.

    1.  The amounts cited on the EU Referendum website might be related to the STEP, Status and Trends of European Pollinators, project under FP7

    I am not

    This is also a relevant document :

    « IUCN is developing a European Red List of pollinators: assessing the status of all bees in Europe. This is a project funded by the EC. The results will be available October 2014.

    I am not familiar enough with the Commission’s website maze to check further.


    2.  Have a look at the thanks and the organization logos. It might be worthwhile to have a look at STEP and check whether it has not been polluted by parallel science.


    3.  The neonic (and fipronil) ban in France has a long and convoluted history, extending over several centre-right and centre-left governments. It is not about support from the far left and greens, but rather giving in to vocal groups, particularly a pseudo-union of beekeepers, and complacent media.


    4.  «  the European Commission’s precautionary ban on neonicotinoids… » ?

    I wonder whether this was what Ann Glover had in mind when she spoke about a Commissioner waking up in the morning and having a strange idea.


    5.  President Obama issued a issued a White House Memorandum, “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” A group of over 100 scientists commented under the auspices of lobby group PANNA. Among them, half a dozen members of the IUCN/independent TFSP :

    So much for independence and credibility.


    6.  Yes, EPILOBEE showed that bees did not fare that badly in Europe. You can even see that written down on the Commission’s website.

    There is also another source : COLOSS.


    7.  You might wish to drop me an email.

    1. Thank you for this Wackes – the last blog, early next week if I can clear some of the other things off of my desk, will be on the role activist scientists are taking on expert advisory panels and in the decision-making process. The PANNA letter was for me the last straw. Naming and shaming is never pleasant, but when these little troublemakers behave shamefully, I don’t feel at all guilty. Having a white coat to give advice is one thing, but using it to whitewash evidence to please your paymasters is unacceptable.
      I wonder how they have been able to get this far. Have we been sleeping or are they that much more clever?
      I’ll research the links a bit and get back to you via this discussion … I have nothing to hide!

  3. UncleA.,

    Many thanks for your reply.

    1.  It seems the cached version of the Commission’s memo is not different from the published one.

    2.  On re-reading it, I feel the following needs to be highlighted :

    « 5. Since the findings show that honeybee decline is less dramatic than first thought, will the Commission maintain its ban on neonicotinoids?

    The Commission based its decision on new scientific information which became available in 2012 and on which EFSA was asked for an assessment. EFSA identified high risks for bees for some uses of three neonicotinoids (Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiametoxam) and Fipronil. This assessment confirmed that the approval criteria of these pesticides were no longer satisfied. Furthermore, EPILOBEE did not take into account bumble bees and solitary bees, which are also affected by the pesticides and covered by the EFSA assessment. At the time the measures were taken, the results of the EPILOBEE programme were not yet available. »

    3.  Would you believe it ? There is a new piece of information which shows that bees do not fare that badly and the Commission basically discards it by mulling over the past.

    How ?

    4.  The Commission : « EFSA identified high risks for bees for some use…s »

    EFSA (its press release, which was challenged by Syngenta) : « EFSA scientists have identified a number of risks posed to bees… »

    5.  The Commission : «  This assessment confirmed that the approval criteria of these pesticides were no longer satisfied. »

    I’m afraid, if that were the case, the Commission shound have instigated a permanent ban.

    6.  «  EPILOBEE did not take into account bumble bees and solitary bees, which are also affected by the pesticides and covered by the EFSA assessment. »

    EFSA : « Finally, it is highlighted that limited information was available for pollinators other than honey bees; therefore the risk to these other pollinators should be further considered. »

    7.  The memo also has this to say :

    « 6. Why does the EU surveillance not include pesticide monitoring?

    The Commission did request the EU Reference Laboratory to include pesticides in the study. However a draft project was discussed with Member States experts and at that stage it was not considered feasible to carry out such a surveillance programme on pesticides together with the one carried out. »

    Well… Not feasible in – basically – a survey or enquiry ? In a 4.7 million € exercise to which the Commission contributed 3.3 million € ?

    8.  Useful link to an IUCN press release supporting a Greenpeace action so well analyzed and characterized in a previous post on this website.

    May be IUCN would again jump in in relation to this :

  4. Yes forgive me for repeating information.

    A short clip of Paola Coggi Testori closing remarks regarding the EU ban.

    PAN Europe, jointly with Bee Life – European Beekeeping Coordination and Corporate Europe Observatory wrote a letter to Mrs Testori Coggi on this regards.

    Just a coincidence she has stepped down now, I am not sure.

    Beekeepers poisoning their own bees was big on the Laddomadda document.

    1. Thank you UncleAdolph – Paola Coggi Testori had to resign several months ago because, well, I don’t know how to say this without shaking my head, she got a little too closely involved with a food NGO. Sanco is so knee-deep in activism I wonder why SecGen doesn’t just purge the whole lot of them.
      The Laddomada document will play prominently in my next blog – the two tables nicely demonstrate what Sanco knew, when and why they still decided to act otherwise (see sentence above).

  5. 1.  Interesting the closing remarks of Ms. Paola Testori Coggi: “The results of the [EPILOBEE] survey for us should not be taken as an excuse to say that what we have done was I would say excessive or that it was not well justified.”

    Semantically correct : nothing should be taken as an excuse. But quite telling on the state of mind.

    2.  What is the Corporate Europe Observatory interest in bees and the letter sent to Ms. Testori Coggi ? An interesting case (on more) of pack hunting.

    3.  The letter refers to the (purported) situation in France. This raises four observations:

    a.  The bee issue is highly politicized. Bees are a pretext to advance issues that have nothing to do with them.

    b.  It is very difficult to get credible information on the real situation. Colony counts are extravagantly divergent.

    c.  It is noteworthy that France is conspicuously absent from a number of surveys. Because data could not be collected or because they would reveal an inconvenient truth.

    d.  The correlation of been mortality and pesticide use is largely fake. Vineyards occupy 3.7 % of French agricultural land and represent 20 % of pesticide use. The picture – insofar as one can establish one given the reluctance to provide figures – would be quite different if that factor were taken into account.

    4.  A piece that may be useful:

    With a correction : the Swiss authorities followed suit on the neonic suspension in April 2013.

    1. Thanks Wackes for the link with some good history. It will be an interesting year as I believe there are those in SANCO that want to see the ban made permanent – they will have to look hard to find some data to fit their bias (I suppose they are hoping for a cold winter).
      CEO was created to flank Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth when the lobbying gets tough – they are then called in to attack any policymaker who might dare listen to or be seen with anyone from industry. It is quite a successful formula. They are on bees because this is going to be a tough fight for them next year (but they don’t need to find the data, … who needs data when you can get a couple million signatures). CEO is also on bees because they can focus an emotional attack on industry … without evidence! What’s not to like about that?

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