With corporate funding of research, “there’s no scientist who comes out of this unscathed.”
EXETER, England — The bee findings were not what Syngenta expected to hear.
The pesticide giant had commissioned James Cresswell, an expert in flowers and bees at the University of Exeter in England, to study why many of the world’s bee colonies were dying. Companies like Syngenta have long blamed a tiny bug called a varroa mite, rather than their own pesticides, for the bee decline.
Dr. Cresswell has also been skeptical of concerns raised about those pesticides, and even the extent of bee deaths. But his initial research in 2012 undercut concerns about varroa mites as well. So the company, based in Switzerland, began pressing him to consider new data and a different approach.
Looking back at his interactions with the company, Dr. Cresswell said in a recent interview that “Syngenta clearly has got an agenda.” In an email, he summed up that agenda: “It’s the varroa, stupid.”
For Dr. Cresswell, 54, the foray into corporate-backed research threw him into personal crisis. Some of his colleagues ostracized him. He found his principles tested. Even his wife and children had their doubts.
“They couldn’t believe I took the money,” he said of his family. “They imagined there was going to be an awful lot of pressure and thought I sold out.”
The corporate use of academia has been documented in fields like soft drinks and pharmaceuticals. But it is rare for an academic to provide an insider’s view of the relationships being forged with corporations, and the expectations that accompany them.
A review of Syngenta’s strategy shows that Dr. Cresswell’s experience fits in with practices used by American competitors like Monsanto and across the agrochemical industry. Scientists deliver outcomes favorable to companies, while university research departments court corporate support. Universities and regulators sacrifice full autonomy by signing confidentiality agreements. And academics sometimes double as paid consultants.
In Britain, Syngenta has built a network of academics and regulators, even recruiting the leading government scientist on the bee issue. In the United States, Syngenta pays academics like James W. Simpkins of West Virginia University, whose work has helped validate the safety of its products. Not only has Dr. Simpkins’s research been funded by Syngenta, he is also a $250-an-hour consultant for the company. And he teamed up with a Syngenta executive in a consulting venture, emails obtained by The New York Times show.
Dr. Simpkins did not comment. A spokesman for West Virginia University said his consulting work “was based on his 42 years of experience with reproductive neuroendocrinology.”
Scientists who cross agrochemical companies can find themselves at odds with the industry for years. One such scientist is Angelika Hilbeck, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The industry has long since challenged her research, and she has been outspoken in challenging them back.
Going back to the 1990s, her research has found that genetically modified corn — intended to kill bugs that eat the plant — could harm beneficial insects as well. Back then, Syngenta had not yet been formed, but she said one of its predecessor companies, Ciba-Geigy, tried to stifle her research by citing a confidentiality agreement signed by her employer then, a Swiss government research center called Agroscope.
Examining the globe-spanning relationship of chemical companies, academics and regulators, and the powerful toxins and genetically modified seeds used to grow food in many parts of the world.
Confidentiality agreements have become routine. The United States Department of Agriculture turned over 43 confidentiality agreements reached with Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto since the beginning of 2010 after a Freedom of Information Act request. Agroscope turned over an additional five with Swiss agrochemical companies.
Many of the agreements highlight how regulators are often more like collaborators than watchdogs, exploring joint research and patent deals that they agree to keep secret.
One agreement between the U.S.D.A. and Syngenta, which came with a five-year nondisclosure term, covered things including “research and development activities,” “manufacturing processes” and “financial and marketing information related to crop protection and seed technologies.” In another agreement, a government scientist was barred even from disclosing sensitive information she heard at a symposium run by Monsanto.
The Agriculture Department, in a statement, said that without such agreements and partnerships, “many technological solutions would not make it to the public,” adding that research findings were released “objectively without inappropriate influence from internal or external partners.”
Luke Gibbs, a spokesman for Syngenta, which is now being acquired by the China National Chemical Corporation, said in a statement, “We are proud of the collaborations and partnerships we have built.”
“All researchers we partner with are free to express their views publicly in regard to our products and approaches,” he said. “Syngenta does not pressure academics to draw conclusions and allows unfettered and independent submission of any papers generated from commissioned research.”
A look at the experiences of the three scientists — Dr. Cresswell, Dr. Simpkins and Dr. Hilbeck — reveals the ways agrochemical companies shape scientific thought.
A Reluctant Partner
For James Cresswell, taking money from Syngenta was not an easy decision.
Dr. Cresswell has been a researcher at the University of Exeter, in England’s southwest, for a quarter-century, mostly exploring the esoterica of flower reproduction in papers with titles like “Conifer ovulate cones accumulate pollen principally by simple impaction.” He was not used to making headlines.
But about a half-decade ago, he became interested in the debate over neonicotinoids, a class of pesticide derived from nicotine, and their effects on bee health. Many studies linked the chemicals to a mysterious collapse of bee colonies that was in the news. Other studies, many backed by industry, pointed to the varroa mite, and some saw both factors at play.
Dr. Cresswell’s initial research led him to believe that concerns about the pesticides were overblown. In 2012, Syngenta offered to fund further research.
While many academics resisted efforts by The Times to examine their communications with Syngenta, Dr. Cresswell did not challenge a records request submitted to his university. And he spoke with candor.
“The last thing I wanted to do was get in bed with Syngenta,” Dr. Cresswell said. “I’m no fan of intensive agriculture.”
But turning away research funding is difficult. The British government ranks universities on how useful their work is to industry and society, tying government grants to their assessments.
“I was pressured enormously by my university to take that money,” he said. “It’s like being a traveling salesman and having the best possible sales market and telling your boss, ‘I’m not going to sell there.’ You can’t really do that.”
The issue soon came up at Dr. Cresswell’s dinner table.
“Me and my mum were like, ‘Oh, you’re taking money,’” his daughter Fay, now a 21-year-old university student, recalled of the conversation that took place. “We didn’t have an argument, but it did get quite heated. We just said, ‘Don’t.’”
Duncan Sandes, a spokesman for Exeter, declined to discuss specific research grants. He said in a statement that up to 15 percent of university research in Britain was funded by industry. “Industry sponsors are fundamentally aware that they will receive independent analysis that has been critically evaluated in an honest and dispassionate manner,” Mr. Sandes said.
But the degree of independence is in question.
Dr. Cresswell and Syngenta agreed on a list of eight potential causes of bee deaths to be studied. They discussed how to structure grant payments. They reviewed research assistant candidates. Dr. Cresswell sought permission from Syngenta to pursue new insights he gained, asking at one point, “Please can you confirm that you are happy with the direction our current work is taking?”
But he also pushed back at times. An email from Syngenta to the university said that Dr. Cresswell “will have final editorial control,” but Dr. Cresswell, in another email, expressed concern that a proposed confidentiality clause “grants Syngenta the right to suppress the results,” adding, “I am not happy to work under a gagging clause.” He says the term of the clause was reduced to only a few months.
Neonicotinoids are now subject to a moratorium in the European Union. A recent study by Britain’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology attributed a population loss of at least 20 percent of many kinds of wild bees to the pesticides.
Syngenta and its competitors argue that the real culprit is a disease called varroosis, which is spread by varroa mites. The Bayer Bee Care Center in Germany includes menacing sculptures of the little pest.
But Dr. Cresswell’s initial research for Syngenta did not support the varroosis claims. “We are finding it pretty unlikely that varoosis is responsible for honey bee declines,” he wrote to Syngenta in 2012.
An executive wrote back, suggesting that Dr. Cresswell look more narrowly at “loss data” of beehives rather than at broader bee stock trends, “As this may give a different answer!”
For the next several weeks, the company repeatedly asked Dr. Cresswell to refocus his examination to look at varroa. In another email, the executive told Dr. Cresswell, “it would also be good to also look at varroa as a potential uptick factor” in specific countries where it could have exacerbated bee losses.
In the same email, part of a chain with the subject line “Varoosis report,” he also asked Dr. Cresswell to look at changes in Europe, rather than worldwide. Dr. Cresswell agreed and said, “I have some other angles to look at the varoosis issue further.”
By changing parameters, varroa mites did become a significant factor. “We’re coming to the view that varoosis is potent regarding colony loss at widespread scale,” Dr. Cresswell wrote in January 2013. A later email included scoring that bore that out.
Mr. Gibbs of Syngenta said, “We discussed and defined the direction of the research in partnership with the researcher with the aim of ensuring that it was focused and relevant.” He added, “We did not undermine Dr. Cresswell’s independence, dictate his approach to assessing the eight factors agreed upon with him, or restrict any of the conclusions he subsequently drew.”
That said, Syngenta was a client and Dr. Cresswell was providing a service. Looking back, Dr. Cresswell said that while he still thought concerns about the pesticides were overblown, aspects of his project were inevitably influenced by the nature of the relationship.
“You can write it up as, Syngenta had an effect on me,” he said. “I can’t actually deny that they didn’t. It wasn’t conniving on my part, but absolutely they influenced what I ended up doing on the project.”
For Dr. Cresswell, the affiliation with Syngenta became a burden. Environmentalists saw him as an adversary, and his industry connection came to define him in news articles. When he was called to testify before Parliament, Dave Goulson, a biology professor at the University of Sussex, sat next to him. Dr. Goulson likened taking money from agrochemical companies to taking money from the tobacco industry, which long denied that cigarettes were addictive.
Some people thrive on controversy. Dr. Cresswell does not.
“It hurt me more than I was willing to admit at the time,” he said. “Everything happened so fast.”
He had a breakdown. He said that he began to feel “I was virtually incompetent,” adding that he would put his head on his desk and think his work was a mess. He ended up leaving his job for several months. Although he presented his research publicly, it was never published.
In an interview, Dr. Goulson said, “I’ve known James for a very long time and always thought he was a good guy.
“You can’t win,” Dr. Goulson added. “If you are funded by industry, people are suspicious of your research. If you’re not funded, you’re accused of being a tree-hugging greenie activist. There’s no scientist who comes out of this unscathed.”
Today, Dr. Cresswell has returned to less controversial areas of bee research. He says he respects scientists he has met from Syngenta, but views collaboration with industry as a Faustian bargain.
He called Syngenta “a kind of devil.”
“What I didn’t realize is that supping with them would actually have a broader impact on how the world sees me as a scientist,” he said. “That was my misjudgment.”
A Tangled Relationship
If some scientists struggle to reconcile themselves with taking corporate money, others embrace complex business relationships.
James W. Simpkins, a professor at West Virginia University and the director of its Center for Basic and Translational Stroke Research, is one of many outside academics whom Syngenta turns to for research.
He has focused on the Syngenta product atrazine — the second most popular weed killer in America, widely used on lawns and crops — often co-authoring research with Syngenta scientists.
Atrazine, banned in the European Union, has also been controversial in America. Most notably, Syngenta started a campaign to discredit Tyrone B. Hayes, a professor it once funded at the University of California, Berkeley, when Dr. Hayes found that atrazine changes the sex of frogs.
Dr. Simpkins has had a different relationship with the company. In 2003, he appeared before American regulators on Syngenta’s behalf, saying that “we can identify no biologically plausible mechanism by which atrazine leads to an increase in prostate cancer.”
Dr. Simpkins was also lead author of a 2011 study finding no support that atrazine causes breast cancer. And last year, he was part of a small team of Syngenta-backed scientists that fought California’s move to require that atrazine be sold with a warning label. He also recently edited a series of papers on atrazine for Syngenta, garnering praise from a senior researcher at the company, Charles Breckenridge, who wrote in an email that the “papers tell a simple, yet compelling story.”
The depth of the financial intertwining of Dr. Simpkins and Syngenta was laid out in nearly 2,000 pages of email traffic, obtained by The Times after a Freedom of Information Act request. Not only does Dr. Simpkins receive research grants, but the company also pays him $250 an hour as a consultant for his work on expert panels, studies and manuscripts, records show. Syngenta even asked Dr. Simpkins to contribute to Dr. Breckenridge’s annual performance review.
Asking outsiders to contribute to corporate reviews is not unusual. However, Dr. Simpkins is also described in the emails as a partner in a venture set up by Dr. Breckenridge called Quality Scientific Solutions to consult on pesticides and other issues.
West Virginia University’s website says that “research conducted at W.V.U. is data-driven, objective and independent” and “not influenced by any political agenda, business priority” or “funding source.” And John A. Bolt, a university spokesman, said that all of Dr. Simpkins’s Syngenta-related research had been conducted before Dr. Simpkins arrived at West Virginia in 2012.
But a review of Dr. Simpkins’s published work shows that he wrote favorable atrazine studies with Syngenta scientists in 2014 and 2015, and listed his university affiliation. Mr. Bolt said Dr. Simpkins only “served as an expert adviser” in the studies.
In 2014, Syngenta made a $30,000 donation to the university’s foundation. Mr. Bolt said that the donation was made “in general support of the research activities of Dr. James W. Simpkins.” None of the money, Mr. Bolt said, was “used to support research related to Syngenta.”
Dr. Simpkins’s collaborations with Dr. Breckenridge appear to be expansive. In an email to Dr. Simpkins last year, Dr. Breckenridge sent him a study on the Mediterranean Diet and suggested that they use a multilevel marketing company to help them sell a product of their own.
“If we could come up with a better Snake Oil,” he wrote to Dr. Simpkins, “we would have access to a massive marketing force.”
A Critic and a Target
Some scientists labor outside the industry. It can be a difficult path.
Angelika Hilbeck worked for Agroscope, a Swiss agricultural research center, in the 1990s, when she began to examine genetically modified corn. The corn was engineered to kill insect larvae that fed on it, but Dr. Hilbeck found that it was also toxic to an insect called the lacewing, a useful bug that eats other pests.
Ciba-Geigy, a predecessor of Syngenta, had a confidentiality agreement with Agroscope, and insisted that she keep the research secret, she said. Confidentiality agreements are not unusual for Agroscope. In one such agreement obtained by The Times, the agency agreed to return or destroy corporate documents it received as part of a research project.
Dr. Hilbeck said she refused to back down and eventually published her work. Her contract at Agroscope was not renewed. An Agroscope spokeswoman said the episode took place too long ago to comment on.
Dr. Hilbeck continued as a university researcher and was succeeded at Agroscope by Jörg Romeis, a scientist who had worked at Bayer and has since co-authored research with employees from Syngenta, DuPont and other companies. He has spent much of his career trying to debunk Dr. Hilbeck’s work. He followed her lacewing studies by co-authoring his own, finding that genetically modified crops were not harmful to the lacewing.
Next, after Dr. Hilbeck co-wrote a paper outlining a model for assessing the unintended risks of such crops, Dr. Romeis was lead author of an alternative approach with a Syngenta scientist among his co-authors.
Then, in 2009, Dr. Hilbeck was an author of a paper looking at risks to ladybug larvae from modified crops. Dr. Romeis followed by co-authoring a study that found “no adverse effects” to ladybug larvae. In subsequent publications, he referred to work by Dr. Hilbeck and others as “bad science” and a “myth.”
“They were my little stalkers,” Dr. Hilbeck said. “Whatever I did, they did.”
In an interview, Dr. Romeis, who now leads Agroscope’s biosafety research group, said, “Her work does not affect our mission in any way,” adding that the idea of researching the effects of genetically modified crops was “not patented by her.”
Refereeing a scientific dispute is difficult. But Dr. Romeis and his collaborators do seem preoccupied with Dr. Hilbeck’s work, judging from a review of email traffic between Agroscope and the U.S.D.A. obtained by The Times after a Freedom of Information Act request.
In 2014, as Dr. Romeis was developing a paper assailing Dr. Hilbeck’s work, one U.S.D.A. scientist, Steven E. Naranjo, joked in a message to Dr. Romeis: “Joerg, its generous of you to see that Hilbeck gets published once in a while :)”
Dr. Hilbeck is used to looking over her shoulder. “We shouldn’t be running into all kinds of obstacles and face all this comprehensive mobbing just doing what we’re supposed to do,” she said. “It’s totally corrupted this field.”
By DANNY HAKIMDEC. 31, 2016