The Risk-Monger

In December, the Risk-Monger showed how a group of scientists planned a programme of political activism around the IUCN to ban neonicotinoid pesticides prior to getting funding from anti-pesticide, anti-industry groups to conduct their research. Although reaction to my blogs were often hostile, I felt vindicated after reading an article just before Christmas in the main Dutch newspaper, the Volkskrant, quoting one of the original anti-neonicotinoid activist scientists, Henk Tennekes, admitting that:

“If we do not ban neonicotinoids, we will be on the threshold of an ecological catastrophe. Entire ecosystems will collapse due to insects going extinct. Of course there was a campaign plan, and the participants knew that”, he (Tennekes) said. “I get that some see this as an unscientific approach, but in this situation I think it is entirely justifiable.” From Dutch, see translation: Scientists Aim to Ban Neonicotinoid Pesticides (Volkskrant article)

I do not think this type of action (of scientists starting a research project with a political objective prior to gathering evidence) is in any way justifiable. Rather, I find it offensive to the scientific institutions to which these individuals consider themselves representatives. Such actions also disgraced the IUCN and diminished public trust in science.

To these individuals, I only have two words: Rules Matter. Scientists need to respect certain rules and follow acceptable norms and standards in how they conduct themselves. Some rules are codified by their establishments, some are statutory, many are based on common sense while they all come from the simple dictum: respect the traditions of the scientific institutions that have earned the public trust over centuries. I feel the IUCN anti-neonic activist scientists did not respect basic scientific codes of practice, and the enormous support I have personally received in the last month seems to endorse that view.

Tennekes’ comment crystalises what is one of the biggest problems of environmental activists (and activist scientists) – that they believe that their noble mission of saving the planet over-rides any ethical rules of behaviour. Groups like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth have long rejected adopting ethical codes of conduct for their activists, and yet they feel no qualms in imposing their rules on others. When scientists start behaving like this in their policy activism, I am afraid it should no longer be ignored – rules do indeed matter … for everyone!

How did these IUCN activist scientists break the rules? From research provided in the three most recent BeeGate Risk-Monger blogs (see blogs 1, 2, 3 for sourcing), we can conclude the following:

  • Political motivation
    Simply put, a scientist does not start with the conclusion (provide publications to be used to ban neonicotinoids) prior to conducting research (read over 800 scientific documents to see what are the main causes of bee decline). Even more simply put, do not place the banning of a product as the main objective for your research. There is a certain role for the scientist in the policy process – to be of service to the policy-maker but not to take the lead (as Churchill once said, scientists should be on tap, but not on top). In 2010, the IUCN activist scientists admitted that they had decided to use their white coats to play policy. While it is normal that all individuals have political views, what makes a scientist valuable in providing evidence is the understanding that their involvement is to be impartial, fact-based and objective. That they would start their research by designing a biased political campaign and then shaping the evidence to support their ambitions is a violation of the public trust in science as the neutral foundation for policy debate.
  • Lack of transparency
    Who actually are the members of the IUCN anti-neonic taskforce? We do not know. They do not list the members on their website and we see different claims of membership numbers in different texts that are released. One of the implied members, Matthias Liess, did not declare his involvement in his EFSA declaration of interest (even though he is listed as an author in articles that acknowledged financial support from the anti-pesticides foundations supporting the IUCN taskforce). When we speak about a body presenting itself as the international voice on the state of the science on bee health, shouldn’t we know who they are? Shouldn’t we know what bee research experience they have?
    And how much money have they received from these anti-pesticides foundations? Once again, we do not know. Nothing is mentioned on the taskforce website and the Triodos Foundation has created a murky structure to funnel other individuals’ and foundations’ donations via a separate account of an unregistered organisation (known as the Support Fund for Independent Research on Bee Decline and Systemic Pesticides). In the EU Transparency Registry, Triodos has declared no financial contributions for lobbying (although this clearly is such a case). It is the sweet smell of hypocrisy that activists scream for others, especially industry, to be transparent but easily turn a blind eye to such double standards.
  • Lack of objectivity
    The IUCN anti-neonic taskforce was not formed by assembling the best and the brightest of the bee research community. It was formed by a select group of likeminded researchers who excluded scientists they did not agree with. It is essentially a private club of anti-pesticides academics funded by anti-pesticides foundations to produce anti-pesticides papers while positioning itself as an international scientific body. Peer review becomes a much maligned concept when it involves submitting papers in mediocre journals to be peer-reviewed by their friends. Worse, as mentioned in the second blog, when members of this special club isolate themselves from other scientists and other ideas, confirmation bias becomes unavoidable. No scientist should ever be trained to surround themselves only with thinkers with whose ideas they are comfortable.
  • Lack of realism
    Some assumed members of the IUCN anti-neonic taskforce have been sharing ideas that are not very intelligent, but when repeated and shared enough, perhaps might become believable. Recall in an earlier blog how Dave Goulson stated that neonicotinoids do not actually work and that farmers need to be re-educated (this recommendation even made it into the concluding IUCN anti-neonic taskforce document). Delightfully, when faced with the reality that UK farmers were facing massive oilseed rape crop losses from the first year of the European Commission’s precautionary ban on neonicotinoids, Goulson flatly declared that UK farmers would need to plant something else next year (never mind that oilseed rape is the third largest crop in the UK). That may be how a creationist thinks, but surely not the thought pattern of a scientist. As Goulson surrounds himself with other “post-normal” scientists, such confirmation bias inevitably sets in.
  • Use of PR hacks to spread research findings
    One of the smelliest aspects of the 2010 IUCN activist scientist strategy document was the conscious decision of the scientists to employ several PR hacks to propagate their activism. PR hacks don’t look for dialogue or exchanging scientific viewpoints, but rather on winning campaigns.They nailed their colours to the mast when they ultimately decided on former Greenpeace media manager, Mirella von Lindenfels, who has made a name for herself in promoting activist science front groups like IPSO. Hardly dialogue driven, when, after four years, the IUCN anti-neonic taskforce only has one external link on their website, and it is to the Pesticide Action Network’s anti-neonicotinoid campaign in the US. Hardly significant research (… but great PR).

The IUCN Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides has been set up essentially as a political front group – they do not do any original research, are not transparent on their membership or amount of funding and was formed to do PR and political activism. Were there any rules?

I suspect these IUCN activist scientists genuinely believe their predictions of imminent ecological collapse (ie, I do not feel these individuals have intentionally lied). I also understand how it must be incredibly frustrating for them that the mainstream bee research community and the main scientific journals (the ones with impact factors greater than 2) have rejected their findings and publications. But that does not justify these individuals behaving in such a manner (no matter how noble they may think their intentions may be) where they bypassed the normal scientific procedures and engaged in political activism. Even if they are right (and the mainstream scientific community is wrong), such improper scientific behaviour has discredited anything they have to contribute to the debate. This behaviour has also diminished the public trust in scientific institutions.

Rules indeed do matter.

 

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this analysis

    in addition to the points you have made, the anti neonicotinoid activists have widely used ad hominem arguments to discredit any science that opposes their political agenda.
    When they say that research cant be trusted if it was funded by industry or even done with the involvement of someone who accepted funds in the past from industry, it harms the credibility of all science. This is so widespread that the mere mention of industry funding in a media interview will dismiss whatever is being said. Even leading researchers are afraid to accept funding form industry. The EPA has included ad hominem arguments in its criteria for rejuction of contributions to its ecotoxicology database.
    John Purdy PhD

  2. What was known about neonics at the time of the Paris meeting in June 2010 was deeply troubling, and the author fails to provide this aid to perspective, which is grossly unfair. My 2010 publications demonstrate what we were up against: an environmental disaster which could bring the end of life alltogether on this planet. Insects can survive without humans, but not the other way around. And back in 2010, there was compelling evidence that the latter was about to happen. Faced with these deeply troubling facts, all but one of the experts that gathered in Paris agreed that a ban on neonics was required. Because one expert disagreed, a strategy paper was produced that has now become subject of debate. Scientists may become activists when there is good reason for concern, and there was.

  3. Since my discovery in 2009 of the similarities in dose-response characteristics of neonics and genotoxic carcinogens (for which no safe exposure levels exist) there can be little doubt that environmental pollution with these persistent insecticides will lead to a disaster. And if you would care to look at the insectivores you realize it is happening before our eyes. The frogs are wiped out in California’s Sierra Nevada and when was the last time you saw a purple martin there ? Whatever happened to the swallows in the Maritimes? What has happened to the bats in America? Why is it that the sage grouse and prairie chicken are close to extinction? Wherever you look the insectivores are in deep trouble. My contention is that environmental pollution with insidious insecticides is at the root of this problem. That contention is based on sound science and I felt it was my duty to speak out or as Rachel Carson has put it: “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent…
    It is, in the deepest sense, a privilege as well as a duty to speak out—to many thousands of people…” .

    1. Thank you for your comments Henk. The problem for me is that we are talking about eleven people in a room in 2010 speaking anecdotally. The hundreds of bee researchers who are working in the field, producing data, do not see this as “just ban neonicotinoids and the problem will go away”. When I look at the COLOSS membership (the leading organisation of bee researchers), there is only one person on that list of 433 members (that we know of) coming from the IUCN Taskforce. When I look at the hundreds of researchers producing data, testing thousands of bees, for Epilobee, they do not come to the same conclusions as the IUCN taskforce. So rather than entering a dialogue with these larger bee research organisations, the taskforce takes funding from anti-pesticide foundations and gets a PR manager who used to work for Greenpeace, joins campaigns with NGOs like PAN and goes straight to the public with a political campaign.
      I hope you understand that a small minority bypassing the scientific community and engaging in politics does not enhance the public trust in science, but rather, creates fear, uncertainty and confusion. Knowing what we do since Rachel Carson, I hope you agree with me that this is not how things should be done.

  4. The problem is far more complicated than you suggest. I have actually entered a dialogue with bee researchers and key decision makers at regulatory authorities in my home country Holland. I have even tried to get a dialogue going with Bayer CropScience, an important producer of neonics. I am a consultant toxicologist since 1992 and have served leading companies in the chemical industry with an excellent record of achievement. The trouble in this particular case was that vested interests were at stake and that the producers were staunchly defending the market position of neonics. I don’t even blame them for that, but it polarised the debate. A resonable exchange of views became virtually imposssible. Faced with this situation and knowing that the stakes were very high for industry as well as for the group of concerned scientists you have criticized, it is wrong to assume that we did not stick to the rules of good scientific practice, We wholeheartedly did but strategies had to be developed to make sure our voice was heard. This is not a marginal issue by any means. It is about survival of life on the planet.

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