Ecologists paid by industry to assess the effects of businesses on the environment are often accused of selling their souls. But isn't scientific expertise exactly what is needed? Michael Hopkin investigates.
Picture this: you are a talented research ecologist and you're evaluating whether a planned hydroelectric dam could damage the local ecosystem. Your findings lead you to believe that the fish in the river would not be significantly harmed by the dam. But when you publish your results, your colleagues refuse to believe them. Why? Because you work for the company that is building the dam.
At first glance, big business seems to be only bad for the environment. After all, industry has cut down rainforests and opened up huge mining scars on the landscape. Surely, it might seem, any ecologist who takes money from an organization that so harms the natural world must be putting concerns about the environment second to salary.
In fact, many ecologists take up industrial contracts to try to minimize the damage caused. But in doing so, they walk a delicate line between those who want to save the natural world and those who want to exploit its resources. Some face accusations from their peers that they've ‘sold out’. And conflicts often arise between their interests as researchers and those of the companies they work for. Faced with these challenges, many must question whether their decision to work for industry was worth it.
For some, such as Tyrone Hayes, the answer is no. Hayes is an ecological toxicologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has received funding from the agribiotech giant Syngenta in the past. “My view has changed a lot since working with Syngenta,” he says. “It's made me a lot more sceptical of scientists who get involved with industry.”
Hayes's work touches on one of the most politically charged areas of applied research: the impact of pesticides on the environment. Specifically, he is studying the effects on frogs of atrazine, widely used on transgenic crops. At Berkeley, Hayes took up a contract with Syngenta, brokered by a consulting firm. In his research, he found that exposure to atrazine leads to male frogs becoming feminized, as measured, among other traits, by larynx size1.
Culture of mistrust
But Syngenta asked him to divide his data on larynx size by the frogs' body weight, a procedure that he says was designed to make the key finding disappear. A Syngenta representative said that processing the information in this way is a common method for handling data from such studies, designed simply to control for the presence of naturally stunted frogs. Hayes eventually gave up the lucrative contract, and no longer works with industry colleagues, who are forbidden from discussing their results with him.
Hayes worries that many scientists in his field could come under similar pressure when working under industry contracts. “It's up to researchers to maintain the integrity to say: ‘No, I produce data in my lab and I have got to stand by them’,” he says. But that can be hard to do, especially when research funding is at stake.
In general, big businesses, often forced by environmental regulations to investigate the impact of their activities on the environment, have the financial muscle to fully support such projects. Last year the BP Conservation Project, funded by the UK-based oil giant BP, awarded US$600,000 to 28 groups of conservationists. Overall, the company spends around $100 million each year on community-investment efforts. That amount of money can seem vast to researchers used to relying on academic funding (see ‘The lure of industry’).
But peers remaining in academia often charge that industry employees have sold their integrity down the river. “When I went to work for ‘big oil’, friends wondered why I had gone over to the dark side,” recalls Bill Streever, who works for BP as an environmental investigator in Alaska. In a journal editorial published last year2, Streever wrote: “People I barely knew — students in lecture halls, government regulators, and friends of friends — started questioning my integrity.”
Asked whether he accepts that there is conflict between the work he does and the source of its funding, Streever's answer is an emphatic no. Working inside industry, he argues, is the best way to gain some real influence and ensure that big business really does embrace environmental stewardship.
Many companies need competent scientists to meet legal guidelines on minimizing the detrimental impact of their operations. “My feeling is that there's a tremendous need out there for talented scientists,” says Streever.
Streever also enjoys the relative largesse of big business. For example, in an investigation he mounted on whether noise from oil-drilling operations affects whales in the Beaufort Sea, Streever used BP money to convene a panel that brought together expertise from the diverse fields of acoustics, statistics and mammal ecology. As a wetlands ecologist by training, Streever says it would have been difficult to obtain the funding needed for the panel through traditional wetlands-ecology channels.
Scientists aren't the only ones who stand to benefit from partnerships with industry. Elaine Dorward-King, head of health, safety and the environment at the mining multi-national Rio Tinto, argues that companies have everything to gain by protecting their reputations through diligent environmental stewardship. “If you want to have a positive impact on the world, I can scarcely think of a better area to work in,” she says.
For a corporate behemoth such as Rio Tinto, she adds, losing the trust of local people means losing out financially in the long run. In Madagascar, where the company is eyeing a huge deposit of the mineral ilmenite, Rio Tinto's environmental department has spent the past 20 years weighing up the likely impact of a mining operation on the local community and environment. Past mistakes stress this need for caution: in Papua New Guinea, back in the 1960s, a copper mine owned in part by Rio Tinto polluted the surrounding environment, and eventually helped lead to a civil war that caused the mine to close.
There is often a third player in the collaboration between environmental science and business: non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. Many operate from a position of supreme cynicism, accusing industry figures such as Dorward-King of spouting platitudes while having one eye firmly fixed on the balance sheet. But others see collaborations between science and industry as a key opportunity to influence big business, and lever their relatively modest funds into brokering such collaborations.
One organization that falls into the second category is Fauna and Flora International, based in Cambridge, UK. It joined forces with BP in 1990 to help minimize the impact of oil-drilling operations on local wildlife, and was predictably accused by other, more hardline NGOs of selling out.
But Annelisa Grigg, the organization's director of corporate affairs, argues that this puts it in a position of influence with big business that it would not otherwise enjoy. She says that her organization now has the ear of more than 25 mining corporations, as well as the International Council of Mining and Metals, based in London, UK.
In the end, environmental scientists say they must keep a critical eye on all science, whether it comes from the industrial or academic sector. “You always have to prove yourself,” says Marianne Carter, who manages a conservation programme that links BP with conservationists in academia. “And show that it's not just a greenwash.”
About this article