Opinion: More light, less heat over endocrine disruptors

Penn State
By Kevin C. Elliott and David B. Resnik

For Environmental Health News
 

April 21, 2014


Over the past year, scientists have engaged in a vigorous dispute over Europe’s potential regulations for endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The debate began last summer, when 18 scientists wrote an editorial that was sharply critical of a leaked European Union plan. Other scientists countered that the plan was reasonable and supported by scientific evidence.

This controversy over these chemicals, which are used in a wide array of consumer products, provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on an important topic: How can scientists inform policy without sacrificing objectivity?

Universität Konstanz

Two steps are critical: Scientists should disclose conflicts of interest, and they should serve as “honest brokers” by clarifying the strengths and weaknesses of multiple interpretations of the science.

Scientists should disclose conflicts of interest and serve as “honest brokers" of multiple interpretations of the science.Historically, many scientists assumed that the best way to promote objectivity was to eliminate all interests and values from their research. But there are two reasons that this approach is likely to be unhelpful when addressing highly debated areas of science with major social ramifications.

First, when researchers draw conclusions about policy-relevant matters, they have to make value judgments about the appropriate standards of evidence to use. For example, evidence from animal studies and three phases of clinical trials is usually necessary to approve a drug for human use, while evidence from animal studies might be sufficient to show that an industrial chemical poses a potential threat to human health and ought to be regulated. Determining how much evidence should be used when setting policy depends on the impact on public health, society and the environment, as well as the ethical and practical dimensions of the research needed to generate the evidence. For example, even in the absence of certainty about human health effects, it might be advisable to eliminate bisphenol A (BPA) in baby products or phthalates in toys if their potential health effects are serious and alternatives are available.

Also, eliminating all interests and values from scientific reasoning is an unrealistic goal. Psychological research indicates that scientists are unavoidably influenced by a variety of personal, political, cultural and financial interests. For example, even among professional toxicologists, females appear to perceive chemicals as more risky than males, and academics perceive chemicals as more risky than those employed by industry. Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies who has questioned some climate change findings, has argued that efforts to suppress or ignore interests and values may lead scientists to become stealth issue advocates.” 

If scientific objectivity cannot be achieved by eliminating values, what alternative options are available? We suggest that a more realistic and promising approach is to pursue transparency.

NIEHS

Scientists should acknowledge financial conflicts of interest as well as professional or political allegiances that could influence one’s judgment. In the dispute over the endocrine disruptor policy, Environmental Health News reported that 17 of the 18 authors of the original editorial that criticized EU policy had ties to regulated industries. Based on the model of objectivity proposed here, this information is important to disclose.

Another strategy for scientists is to anticipate potential ways that one’s conclusions could be misinterpreted or misused.Other strategies include making data used to support policy-relevant science publicly available, presenting a range of plausible interpretations, clarifying crucial assumptions and reasons for disagreements and anticipating potential ways that one’s conclusions could be misinterpreted or misused. Admittedly, it may be unrealistic to expect scientists to discuss a wide range of potential interpretations in an editorial. But given that editorials are often used by politicians, policymakers and the public, there is much to be gained by providing at least a quick gesture to the range of perspectives in the scientific community.

Scientists can take other relatively simple steps to acknowledge their values. For example, rather than asserting outright in their editorial that the hypothesis of no threshold (no safe dose) for endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as BPA is “supported by the science,” Andrea Gore and her colleagues could assert that it is a reasonable conclusion based on the existing science, given the goal of promoting public health. Similarly, Daniel Dietrich and his colleagues could state more clearly that because of the economic ramifications of the EU’s proposal, more evidence should be demanded to support it. This would be a more transparent way of expressing the value dimensions of their position than to claim that the EU’s proposal “is based on virtually complete ignorance of all well-established and taught principles of pharmacology and toxicology.”

While scientists should strive for objectivity, attempts to maintain a sharp distinction between science and values are counterproductive. On the other hand, bringing interests and values into the open may promote better science and, ultimately, better policy.

For more from Elliott and Resnik on this topic, see their report at Environmental Health Perspectives. Elliott is an associate professor at Michigan State University’s Lyman Briggs College and Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and an adjunct professor in the Department of Philosophy. He is the author of the book, Is a Little Pollution Good for You? Incorporating Societal Values in Environmental Research. Resnik is a bioethicist and Institutional Review Board (IRB) chair at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. He has published eight books on ethical, legal, social and philosophical issues in science, medicine and technology and is associate editor of the journal Accountability in Research.

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