For a growing number of critics, the breakthrough verdict against Monsanto for $289 million over its Roundup weedkiller is an indictment of the company’s corporate culture but also of academics who were used by the company to discredit scientific studies linking the herbicide to cancer. Former groundskeeper, Dewayne Johnson, 46, reportedly has only months to live but he just delivered a body blow to one of the largest corporations in the world. It is not that $289 million is a crippling fine for Monsanto, but the verdict of guilt based on a finding of actions taken “with malice or oppression” will likely trigger tens of thousands of such claims. Not surprisingly, Monsanto is now ditching its name in favor of Bayer after its recent acquisition.
The jury found that the company was guilty of “negligent failure” and knew or should have known that its product was “dangerous”.
The impact of the verdict is considerable given the key chemical involved — glyphosate. That is the world’s most widely used herbicide. A study by Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini at the University of Caen expanded on earlier research suggesting that glyphosate is a major health risk.
The plaintiffs showed not only internal emails that allegedly acknowledged and buried these risks, but also the use of academics to obscure or dismiss negative scientific studies.
Academics were allegedly paid for favorable scientific analyses and the company event helped write from the publications. It allowed for both funding bias and publication bias in shaping the literature to advance the interests of the company.
This controversy came to a head with the 2012 Proprosition 37 GMO labeling campaign in California where an expert named Henry Miller was criticized for his work in favor of Monsanto. Many criticized Miller for using his association with Stanford in the corporate campaign even though he is not technically a Stanford professor but rather a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, which is housed on campus. Worse yet, the New York Times described what it said was an arrangement for a key article to be ghostwritten for Miller.
“Documents show that Henry I. Miller … asked Monsanto to draft an article for him that largely mirrored one that appeared under his name on Forbes’s website in 2015 … An academic involved in writing research funded by Monsanto, John Acquavella, a former Monsanto employee, appeared to express discomfort with the process, writing in a 2015 email to a Monsanto executive, ‘I can’t be part of deceptive authorship on a presentation or publication.’ He also said of the way the company was trying to present the authorship: ‘We call that ghost writing and it is unethical.'”
This type of allegation was at the heart of the recent verdict against the company and could again raise questions over the role of academics in failing to maintain intellectual and scientific independence. Science is often funded by private industry, but there are ethical principles governing the relationship. The company may have appealable issues over the basis for the scientific link between Roundup and cancer. However, the newly released material on the use of academics by the company is likely to have ripple effects throughout academia for years to come.