Wannabe whistleblowers believe that funding from the agrochemical industry invalidates research, but this view is overblown.

By Alison McAfee

April 1st, 2020

If Bayer offered me $1 million to start a research program, would I take it? If I accepted the funds, my hypothetical laboratory would have years of prosperity. But if the results of my research happened to favor the pesticide industry, I would promptly be labeled a shill.

Would that be justified? There’s a stereotype that industry-funded research is inherently compromised. Perhaps this is true for some specific cases, but for pollinator research, it is not the norm for researchers, data, or communications to be manipulated by industry relationships, and it is certainly not a widespread conspiracy. But the perception of back-scratching is damaging enough, sufficient for me consider forsaking funds, even if I know my integrity is sound. And that bothers me.

If it looks like there is an ulterior motive, damage is done, whether there is direct interference by the industry backer or not. This is a problem, because public paranoia puts scientists between a rock and a brick wall.

We need money to do our research, train our students, and buy our equipment, and industry is often willing to provide that, even if they have to stay out of our kitchen. Researchers are further pressured by their own universities to accept grants from companies, because industry funds can often be matched by the government, essentially doubling their money. It’s good for the researchers and their institutions, but it’s the researchers who are left to grow thick skins.

The Intercept, an online news publication, recently published a long-form investigative article on January 18, 2020, titled The Playbook for Poisoning the Earth, by Lee Fang. The article takes a blistering look at Bayer’s launch of what Fang calls a “stunningly successful campaign” to keep neonicotinoid pesticides registered and in wide circulation despite a growing number of scientific publications showing that they are not the harmless compounds that Bayer claims.

Fang believes that Bayer cultivated relationships with honey bee scientists to covertly sway research outcomes and discourse. He cites cases where industry provided researchers with financial support that coincided with what he saw as a suspicious shift in rhetoric away from pesticide-blaming and toward varroa (a devastating parasitic mite) for dwindling colony health. “The greatest public relations coup,” writes Fang, “has been the push to reframe the debate around bee decline to focus only on the threat of varroa mites.”

He specifically targets Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a professor at the University of Maryland, criticizing him for shifting his research away from neonicotinoids and toward varroa — a diversion, Fang claims, linked to his relationship with Monsanto and Bayer. vanEngelsdorp was part of Monsanto’s honey bee advisory council, and his initiatives have been funded in part by a nonprofit, Project Apis m., to which Bayer is a major donor.

I can’t speak to the researchers’ integrity for every instance Fang discusses — conflicts of interest do exist, and it’s up to each individual researcher to check their bias and uphold the scientific method. There are instances where companies, like Crop Life, have pressured government researchers to talk more about varroa and less about pesticides. But using these specific examples to invalidate all research that has been funded by agrochemical companies is overreaching. In most cases, the companies remain hands-off and let the researchers do their jobs.

Fang portrays all bee scientists as puppets, lured by the promise of financial aid. He also calls out Dr. Cynthia Scott-Dupree — a Canadian researcher at the University of Guelph — because she published a landmark field trial concluding that the neonicotinoid pesticide, clothianidin, had no significant effect on colony health when applied to canola. Fang pointed to the fact that Scott-Dupree held a grant from Bayer as a mark questioning her motives.

“In my 34-year career, I’ve never been asked to change my data,” Scott-Dupree says. “I was never told by Bayer what I should be working on, and they never told me what I could or couldn’t publish. I’m not willing to lower my standards for any amount of money.”

Other scientists, including Dr. Mark Winston — one of the most widely revered honey bee researchers in the country — don’t hesitate to vouch for her scientific integrity. Scott-Dupree’s Chair in Sustainable Pest Management, funded by Bayer, did not come with any salary reward nor control over her experimental designs, research methods, or dissemination of results.

“I could have taken some money as salary,” Scott-Dupree clarifies, “but I didn’t. I knew that people would try to insinuate that I was getting some kind of kickback.” And while some criticized her experimental methods, that is part of normal scientific discourse. The story is not so simple as “it was funded by Bayer, therefore it’s junk science.”

“The fact that [Scott-Dupree] found a result that the pesticide industry might like doesn’t mean she was manipulated,” Winston argues. He posits that the motivation for agrochemical companies to fund external research is not to manipulate scientists — it’s to create a philanthropic image. “[Corporations] care about being seen as good citizens,” he says. “I don’t think they actually care about the results, or they wouldn’t give us all that money.” After all, pesticide-pollinator research most commonly unearths negative outcomes, rather than pesticide safety. “If the [pesticide] industry is so good at manipulating us,” he points out, “why are there so many papers on the risks of neonics?”

The article in The Intercept makes researchers out to be gullible or spineless for accepting financial support from agrochemical giants. But when I asked Scott-Dupree why she took the grant from Bayer, despite understanding the optics, her response was anything but that. She said that in the beginning, she turned the grant down. However, in the end she decided that “if you do good research, it doesn’t matter what anybody does to try to make you look bad. You keep moving forward, you keep making progress.”

When he was an active researcher, Winston’s laboratory also received funds from Bayer and Monsanto, as well as government sources, environmental organizations and beekeeping groups. But the grants he agreed to, like most at public institutions, ensured that he held operational independence. Winston says he never felt like he was under pressure, and that communication with Bayer and Monsanto employees was quite useful. “They do know their pesticides,” he says.

And, more often than not, studies in his laboratory revealed problems with pesticides and bees. This includes a notable study, funded in part by Monsanto, conducted by his student Lora Morandin. That study identified a catastrophic loss of plant biodiversity from the use of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant canola, which harmed honey bees and wild bee diversity by dramatically reducing the variety of available forage.

“The community is justifiably ticked off at the damage the chemical industry has caused,” Winston says. But Fang’s article has “maligned people, work, and research [in a way] that is not reflective of the real situation.” Peer-reviewed literature is replete with papers on the damaging effects of pesticides and varroa, inconsistent with a research manipulation conspiracy.

Fang even questions the integrity of Project Apis m. — the nonprofit that supported vanEngelsdorp’s initiatives. The nonprofit’s mission is to fund research that helps enhance honey bee health and improve crop production. They accept research proposals from people like me, then the board of directors (ten professional beekeepers from throughout the U.S.) decide what to fund based on their own preferences and recommendations from the scientific advisory board. One of the scientific advisory board members is none other than Jerry Hayes, former Monsanto employee and former author of “The Classroom” in this magazine.

Bayer is a significant donor to Project Apis m. Bayer acquired Monsanto, so now, it looks like Bayer gets a seat at the table, via Hayes, to decide what Project Apis m. funds. But Hayes, as an individual, is well-respected in the field and is one of five advisors who ultimately don’t make the final funding decision — that is up to the board of directors, the beekeepers.

I’m a Project Apis m. grant holder myself, and so are several of my colleagues. Nothing I have seen or experienced has made me question the integrity of the Project’s conduct or motives. And now the ultra-skeptical reader will think to themselves “Well, McAfee holds funds from a nonprofit that’s supported by Bayer. She can’t be trusted either.”

Readers are right to be skeptical, but Bayer’s money is everywhere and skepticism easily turns into paranoia. If we distrust everything their money has touched, we will strike through a mountain of good science, too. That skepticism needs to be balanced with a willingness to dig a little deeper to see what’s really going on in each specific situation.

Would I take the $1 M from Bayer? Yeah, actually, I probably would. Doing good science and training good scientists would be worth growing the thick skin.

A version of this article originally appeared in American Bee Journal.