Opinion

French Research Agency Churning Out Pseudoscience on America’s Dime

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Posted: Jun 24, 2018 12:01 AM
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French Research Agency Churning Out Pseudoscience on America’s Dime

Cancer research is big business, and with big business comes big corruption. The embattled International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), based in Lyon, France, is in Congress’s crosshairs again. The U.S. House Science, Space and Technology (SST) Committee has been concerned about IARC’s scientific integrity—and the millions of dollars of funding it receives from American taxpayers—since 2016. Dr. Elisabete Weiderpass, a Brazilian scientist who was recently chosen to take over the reins of IARC in January 2019. The SST has officially asked Weiderpass to testify at a July hearing to explain how she will manage the agency better than her predecessor, whose tenure the Congressional committee called “an affront to scientific integrity.” 

Congress shouldn’t hold their breath. Weiderpass likely won’t bother to show up—IARC has refused to answer congressional summons in the past, sardonically suggesting that Congress should come to its offices in France instead. What’s more, parts of Weiderpass’s background suggest that she’s unlikely to reverse the barrage of dubious science coming out of IARC. 

The agency’s latest assessment, of styrene—a vital chemical in the plastics industry—further indicates that IARC isn’t ready for the fresh start it desperately needs. For 40 years researchers have concluded that styrene deserves a closer look to determine if it’s a health hazard. IARC has taken it upon itself to massively upgrade this warning, slapping a “Group 2A” classification on styrene, the second highest category in IARC’s ranking of potential cancer culprits. 

The full monograph on styrene has yet to come out, but the summary published in April already raised some eyebrows. IARC claims to have found links between styrene exposure and cancerous growths in humans, yet in the same breath admits that the few cases they found might be chalked up to bias or coincidence. Indeed, the agency is remarkably unabashed in claiming that styrene’s re-classification is based on “limited evidence” that the substance causes cancer in humans. 

The IARC needs to take a hard look at their “limited evidence” before trotting out a Group 2A classification. Despite the grave concerns about its scientific integrity, some states, especially California, still rely on IARC’s assessments to shape their policies. Styrene’s 2A label will undoubtedly induce liberal lawmakers to slap restrictions on producing the chemical in the United States, boosting China’s rapidly growing styrene industry.

This hasty and unscientific determination, however, falls in line with what Representative Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) characterized as IARC’s pattern of “shoddy work.” If the styrene monograph turns out to be as riddled with holes as the preliminary summary, it will be just the latest in a long list of questionable and fearmongering scientific papers IARC has produced.

The IARC initially drew Congressional attention due to a decision to label glyphosate, the world’s most popular herbicide, Group 2A. Three years later, IARC remains the only major research body claiming that glyphosate is a carcinogen. Last December, the EPA found the chemical unlikely to cause cancer, while a host of other studies from national and international authorities show no reason to be worried about current glyphosate usage. IARC seems unwilling or unable to defend its findings. Congress has sent letters asking it to provide information and witnesses, to which it has received only inadequate and incomplete responses. 

Scientific sloppiness on the American taxpayer’s dime would be bad enough, but it came out that the agency had engaged in what was referred to as “blatant manipulations” of its glyphosate report, ignoring and editing out data that contradicted its eventual conclusion. A number of researchers’ conclusions were removed from one draft to the next; in another, fresh statistical analysis was mysteriously inserted which contradicted the study’s original findings. 

IARC drastically underestimated human exposure to the chemical benzene, found in everything from paint to cleaning products. According to one report by Reuters, when an American scientist emailed senior IARC staff to point out the serious flaws in the benzene report, his messages went unanswered. 

Weiderpass, the new IARC director, isn’t likely to be more responsive. Weiderpass has been connected to IARC since her post-doc there in 1994, and has close ties to IARC scientists who’ve gotten in trouble over their unethical kickbacks. While IARC is set to revise its Preamble, which lays out the scientific principles and procedures used in developing a Monograph, Weiderpass’s previous papers defending the methodology suggest this revision may be more form than substance. Weiderpass’s connections to China and Iran—and the curious coincidence that Iran joined IARC the very day Weiderpass was elected director—make it unlikely that she has the American taxpayers’ best interests at heart.

Congress has made it clear that despite this history of supporting the status quo, it is looking for Weiderpass to usher in genuine change, which needs to begin with her testifying before the committee. If she continues IARC’s tradition of snubbing American lawmakers, then it’s high time to make good on threats to pull the agency’s U.S. government funding. America can no longer afford to foot the bill for IARC’s cushy new offices in France and third-rate science.