By Lila Guterman, The Chronicle of Higher Education
6 April 2005
Fifty scientists have sent a letter to a journal of environmental and occupational health to decry the behavior of other researchers who have acted as consultants to ChevronTexaco in a dispute over oil drilling in Ecuador. The consultants were quoted in newspaper advertisements and on Texaco's Web site during a legal battle between the oil company and residents of the South American country.
Texaco drilled in the Ecuadorean Amazon from 1964 to 1992, and residents have sued the company in Ecuador's courts, saying that the pollution left behind has caused cancer and other illnesses, spoiled the environment, and destabilized communities. They argue that the oil company, which in 2001 merged with Chevron, should pay $6-billion to clean up the mess.
But ChevronTexaco insists that the pollution is not nearly as widespread as claimed, and that other factors are likely to have caused the health problems. Backing up those assertions are reports produced for the company by six scientists whom the oil company hired as consultants, including faculty members at Boston University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Texas School of Public Health.
Other scientists cried foul when quotations from the consultants' reports appeared in February on Texaco's Web site and, they say, in full-page advertisements in newspapers in Ecuador. The online statements criticize earlier studies, some of them published in the scientific literature, that showed connections between oil pollution and disease. The Web site, for instance, quotes Lowell E. Sever, a professor of epidemiology at Texas, as saying, "There is little or no evidence that would support a causal relationship between oil contamination and health effects."
The upset scientists are striking back with a letter to the editor of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, a quarterly peer-reviewed journal. In the letter, which is scheduled to appear in June, they call Texaco's advertisements "a blatant effort by the company to sway public opinion as the legal case was being heard." The 50 signers of the letter, most of them academics, work in 17 countries on five continents.
Their concern extends to the actions of Texaco's consultants. In the letter, the researchers respond to some of Texaco's scientific criticisms and assert that "the place to air legitimate scientific concerns about the quality of published research is in the research literature itself."
"The original authors then have the opportunity to respond to the critiques in an environment of open scientific dialogue and scrutiny by scientists internationally," the letter says.
Several of the letter's signers told The Chronicle that they objected to the academic scientists' lending their prestige to Texaco -- "epidemiology for sale," according to Arthur L. Frank, a professor and chairman of the department of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University. "Why didn't they publish differing science and let the scientific community critique it?" he asked.
Joseph LaDou, the journal's editor, said he was happy to throw a spotlight on the consultants' practices. "What I thought was significant about this letter was the broad international signatures that it elicited," said Dr. LaDou, who is director of the International Center for Occupational Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.
"The scientific community," he went on, "is getting a little bit impatient with these hired guns who are willing to have quote after quote of criticism of the scientific literature appear in corporate-sponsored Web sites, while at the same time ignoring a scientific process that reviews articles and generates scientific truth."
Dr. LaDou said he was impressed enough that he signed the letter as well.
But Kenneth J. Rothman, a part-time professor of epidemiology at Boston University and a consultant who helped write one of the reports for Texaco, disputed the other scientists' concerns. He said that he was unaware of the newspaper and Web-site quotations and that Texaco had put no pressure on him to conform to its interests when he reviewed studies purporting to link oil pollution to cancer in Ecuador.
"This is just scientific criticism," Mr. Rothman said. "I have often been asked for opinions and given opinions that were inimical to the interests of the person who hired me. It's happened many times. I have more to lose if I would give a biased report than I would have to gain if I did something that pleased the sponsor."
But Colin L. Soskolne, one of the signers of the letter and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Alberta, in Canada, called consulting work such as Mr. Rothman's "very distressing." He said that environmental epidemiology must be considered in the context of the field's mission: protecting public health. When deciding whether to conduct a study or criticize another, Mr. Soskolne said, "we need to think, How do we make sure that the consequences of even asking the question and doing the study will not cause more harm than good? I'm afraid that many of us lose sight of that."
© 2005 The Chronicle of Higher Education