The prestigious National Academies of Science (NAS) has long resisted calls to address conflicts of interest in its scientific reports, but this week the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the NAS would soon revamp its internal policies.
The Chronicle reported that the President of the National Academies, Dr. Marcia McNutt, will address conflicts of interest in her speech at the scientific body’s annual meeting next week. The changes were prompted by recent criticism about potential bias introduced into the Academies’ work because of industry influence, the Chronicle notes, citing a study I co-authored detailing the Academies’ failure to disclose financial conflicts in an NAS report that “largely gave GMOs a clean bill of health.”
For years, Food & Water Watch and other public-interest advocates, scientists and journalists have documented a wide array of conflicts of interest at the National Academies, which takes millions of dollars from companies like Monsanto and is staffed with scientists who are part of a revolving door with industry. These conflicts of interest can introduce bias into science and erode public trust in science more generally—including on crucial topics like climate change.
It is heartening that a powerful scientific institution like the National Academies is open to public criticism and able to acknowledge its shortcomings. Making meaningful changes could telegraph a powerful—and much needed—message to the wider scientific community that conflicts of interest matter.
That’s especially the case in the world of GMO science, where industry has long played an outsize role in science—funding university research, authoring science, ghostwriting studies, and even financially sponsoring the National Academies. It’s important that the National Academies get this right.
But simply reviewing the NAS’s conflict of interest policy will not result in meaningful new transparency policies nor will it solve the National Academies’ problems. The NAS is already governed by Congressional rules about avoiding and disclosing conflicts of interest. And the NAS has its own internal policy in place, which in theory could police these conflicts. But for decades these policies have been not been enforced, and conflicts of interest have flourished. Enforcement will continue to be the biggest obstacle for the Academies.
Creating a dedicated, independent body at the National Academies to review and manage financial conflicts—with the help of public stakeholders—would go a long way toward addressing this problem. It would also dramatically increase transparency and begin to restore public trust in the National Academies' work on controversial science topics like GMOs.
Is the National Academies finally ready to step up and be a leader on this issue? We’ll find out soon.