November 3, 2015
See the French translation
Dave Goulson is an activist scientist campaigning against conventional farming and the use of products that help farmers protect their crops. An excellent communicator, he is interviewed regularly on environmentalist programmes posing as a concerned scientist fighting the lobbying machinery of big business. Presently a biologist at University of Sussex, I have just recently learnt that Goulson will be receiving research funding from an NGO campaigning to ban neonicotinoid pesticides.
Perhaps this is a good time to look more closely at activist scientists, how NGOs are funding them and consider how such conflicts of interest can compromise the evidence they publish.
Last year I highlighted the flaws in activist science when exposing a group of academics (many not involved in bee research) calling themselves the IUCN Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides. I showed how they had a non-scientific, political motivation behind their research against neonicotinoids while publishing poor evidence in a low-grade, quick “peer review”, pay-per-publish journal.
What is activist science? Where a traditionally-trained scientist is taught to gather evidence and draw conclusions, an activist scientist would start with the desired conclusions and select the evidence. In the case of this self-proclaimed and closed IUCN taskforce, the goal was to ban neonicotinoids, and the methodology was to cherry pick the evidence and then work with some communications experts who could create an illusion of scientific consensus. Dave Goulson was a vocal member of this taskforce (although clearly not the leader of the pack).
Activist scientists like Goulson have blurred the policy debates. Policy-makers hear a scientist making claims and assume that the evidence must be sound and free from political motivation. This is hardly the case anymore. Earlier this year, I presented to the US House Ag Committee on a subject I had entitled: 50 Shades of White. The essential point was that not every white coat can be considered as a reliable scientist. Perhaps researchers are speaking outside of their specialisation; they may be more politically biased than scientifically objective; it is possible that they have personal or petty issues with their fellow researchers; or they might not be very good at what they do. For whatever reason, when bias takes over, that white coat starts looking pretty grey and we need to consider how representative that researcher is of the scientific body of knowledge.
We need to consider whether Dr Goulson’s work is worthy for consideration in policy discussions or if it should be discarded as activist science.
Creating doubt, not data
As long as Dr Goulson gets funding to produce papers that create doubt, industry researchers will have to respond to him. This is the tried and tested tactic of the NGO community – keep questioning the research until people assume there must be a problem (two decades of questioning GMOs did not produce good research, but enough doubt to blackball public trust in biotech). Activist science is not about expanding the body of knowledge or the scientific endeavour of discovery. Rather, it is about trying to tip over the apple cart of common practice until precaution seems to be the only alternative.
Goulson had used the perceived crisis of the decline of pollinators to campaign (with the IUCN Taskforce) for a ban on neonicotinoids. When the data showed that there was no actual decline in honeybee levels (and any increase in bee mortality was linked to other factors like cold winters), Goulson stepped forward with his research on the effects of neonics on bumble bees. Now this research has proven questionable, for many logistical and methodological reasons, so we now see Goulson looking for the effects of this class of pesticides on cats … yes, cats.
You have to really be hell-bent on winning your campaign to ban neonicotinoids to start spooning your way through the kitty litter to gather evidence. Goulson has a theory: there is a class of pet flea treatment products that uses neonicotinoids to kill the parasites on the pets, and there is the possibility that some traces of the treatment pass through into the cats or dogs and out via their excrement.
This is also part of the tried and tested tactics of the environmental activist community. If this pesticide can be found in cats and dogs, we can only assume that it can also be found in humans. And all we need is the suggestion of a trace of a toxic pesticide in humans to then run campaigns to scare the hell out of people – even if it is in the part per trillion range (for reference, a part per trillion is equivalent to one second every 320 centuries).
In a radio interview, Goulson claims that there is likely a contamination of neonicotinoids in the environment from pet flea treatment. Would a credible scientist go on a radio programme and highlight the expected conclusions of the research before he or she begins gathering evidence? Activist scientists know that diagnostic technology will generate enough data to reach the desired conclusion (you can find trace levels of anything you want with a well calibrated chromatograph or spectrometer), but I feel Goulson should have waited for the research to have been published prior to spreading the requisite anti-neonic fear campaigning? This is classic activist behaviour – and very far from scientific.
Activist-funded = activist-biased
Why would a recognised bee scientist suddenly go sifting through cat shit if he did not have an unhealthy obsession with trying to ban a group of pesticides? This is out of his scientific domain and actually a bit ridiculous. The only reason I could possibly think of, is that someone who hates cats (or loves fleas) would fund him.
And that is just the case! The British anti-pesticides campaign NGO, 38 Degrees, recently sent a letter to all of its members asking if they would be willing to fund a study on neonicotinoid flea treatment (see image on right and in reprint). They claim in their letter:
“Experts from the University of Sussex have a plan to find out the truth. They’ll do the science. And once we have the facts, we can run a huge campaign to get these products off shop shelves and out of our gardens until they’re safe.”
In an October 2015 interview with Talking Naturally, Goulson (at the 7 minute point) acknowledges that he would be taking this NGO activist money to provide them with campaign evidence that residues from neonicotinoid flea treatment are passing through the bowels of cats and dogs.
“Talking Naturally: 38° have just launched a petition on exactly that just this week.
Goulson: Yeah, I have actually been involved in that so I know all about it. The money they raise, if they are successful and go ahead, is gonna fund us to do some research in the first instance … That is kind of the first step really to find out the facts about the science and then, you know, that will inform any decision about whether there is a need for a campaign or whatever.”
So Goulson, in an uncomfortable, stammering manner, has admitted that he will be taking money to study cat and dog shit to produce evidence with the sole purpose of a British NGO having some proof to run a fear-based campaign against pesticides.
How on earth is this not biased research? In this interview, Goulson himself is even campaigning against the product before the research has begun. The bias is built into the methodology – this is not science, it is activist science and a scab on the reputation of the University of Sussex for even considering taking in these fear-funds.
What is remarkable is that Goulson himself discredits any research funded by special interests. In a lecture in April 2015 he argued (at the 31 minute point) that the principle shortcoming to three studies that argued against his research is, simply put, the source of their funding:
“Those three studies are all 100% funded by the pesticide industry itself, by the very companies that manufactured the pesticides that were being tested. I really don’t think any scientist could be truly independent if they are actually employed by Syngenta, either directly, or indirectly.”
Really Dr Goulson? And you think you yourself can be truly independent when your research is 100% funded by an activist organisation devoted to banning pesticides and claiming that once you do the science, they will “run a huge campaign to get these products off shop shelves and out of our gardens”. Are you serious? This is in no way independent science but rather a poor example of activist science.
In April, 2015 at the end of a lecture, during a Q&A, Goulson had even admitted that he knew nothing about neonicotinoid flea treatment on cats and dogs, but six months later he is accepting money to do research on it. I have a word for the type of person who does that, but my blog hosting organisation won’t let me use it!
Not using the best scientific methodology
Goulson was recently involved in the publication of a paper that was so statistically weak as to be laughable. In October, 2015, Sussex researchers under Goulson published a paper entitled: Neonicotinoid Residues in Wildflowers, a Potential Route of Chronic Exposure for Bees. The purpose of the study, in itself, was a bit odd. It aimed to question the safety of wildflower zones and bee-friendly strips around agricultural areas (a bee preservation strategy put forward by several crop protection manufacturers).
The findings of this study were remarkable … actually more than remarkable, downright impossible. It seems that wildflowers outside of the area of oilseed rape treated with neonicotinoids were found to have pollen residues 20 times greater than the treated area. So the data they were getting suggested that wildflowers were sucking up all of the neonicotinoids from the area where the product was actually applied. That would be like a tobacco study providing data showing that second hand smoke exposure from a person 100m away was ingesting more toxins than the smoker.
Rather than considering the two off-base readings as statistical anomalies (given benchmark results of similar studies), the researchers, apparently under Goulson’s supervision, chose in their publication to exaggerate the residue levels found in wildflower pollen.
I understand there is pressure on the publisher to retract this study.
What is even more incredible is how two other University of Sussex bee scientists (Norman Carreck and Francis Ratnieks) called Goulson’s work into question and wondered whether the neonicotinoid ban would do much more harm than good. I have a hard time imagining what sort of conversations Goulson might be having with his colleagues by the coffee machine? When other University of Sussex professors are sparring in public about Goulson’s methodology, I am curious how they must feel about anti-pesticide NGO campaign funds further staining their university’s reputation.
A man of the people (… not the farmers)
Goulson repeatedly claims that neonicotinoids don’t work at all. While he regularly denies that he thinks farmers are stupid, he then argues that they are gullibly sold useless things by misleading agronomists and pesticide companies (see declarations in various interviews at the 45 minute point, 8 minute point, 24 minute point or his Friends of the Earth interview)
Farmers do not want to use pesticides – they are expensive and hazardous to use – so Goulson’s remarks are ridiculous. Growing up on a farm, we would apply crop protection materials on the advice of the government authorities (according to weather conditions, known pest outbreaks and stages of crop development). We would sometimes use less than advised at our own peril as economisations had frequently led to devastating crop losses. We are not stupid people throwing money away on dangerous chemicals because we have no better sense.
Goulson also regularly claims that we can feed the world with organic alone and that food waste and obesity are the problems (in short, consumers in the west are eating too much!) – see 50 minute point or 26 minute point. As a bee scientist, he seems to think he knows a lot about farming (and obesity). I suggest he should go and talk to farmers instead of on behalf of them.
There are those who may think that it is unfair to focus a critical blog on a particular person or individual. I agree that it is unpleasant when NGOs take to ad hominem attacks, be it how Nassim Nicholas Taleb led a personal attack on Kevin Folta, how heads or organisations like Planned Parenthood are assassinated in the media or when public figures and policy-makers are regularly pasted by campaigners for voting against their positions. I understand this sentiment.
However, if Mr Goulson claims to represent science when leading these activist campaigns and has had no qualms about such tactics in his own attacks on companies, farmers or other scientists, then, while reluctant, I feel this critical blog is fair game. I think we need to consider the value and motivation behind his work before new policies are adopted based upon it – policies that affect lives and livelihoods.
I believe that Goulson is an illustration of how an activist scientist’s work is not the right shade of white to be considered as valuable for policy-making.