Mining industry takes on peer-review

It’s really not a new storyline: A big science study is examining whether some industry product or practice is harmful, and industry lawyers and scientists pull out all the stops to block the results. In this case, the question is whether miners’ exposure to diesel exhaust increases their risk of lung cancer. (Really, is there anything about being a miner that does not increase your risk of lung cancer?)

A post over at the Natural Resources Defense Council lays out the details (h/t Climate Progress). Several scientific journals received threatening letters from a mining industry lobby, warning these journals not to publish, or even peer-review papers from the diesel/mining/lung cancer study. The mining industry is trying to block publication of scientific studies they did not pay for, and whose results they did not like. A society in which any scientific study can be blocked by third party that possesses enough legal firepower is not the kind of society we should be.

According to Science, several journal editors received legal threats from a mining industry lobbyist:

Editors with at least four research publications say they have received a letter advising them against “publication or other distribution” of data and draft documents. The warning, including a vague statement about “consequences” that could ensue if the advice is ignored, is signed by Henry Chajet, an attorney at the Patton Boggs firm in Washington, D.C., and a lobbyist for the Mining Awareness Resource Group, which works on behalf of the mining industry.

The NIH miners/diesel/lung cancer study has long been a political football. When the study was first being developed two decades ago, the mining industry was all over it, reports Science:

An industry coalition, including the Mining Awareness Resource Group, has long argued that DEMS was scientifically flawed. The coalition first took the federal government to court in the 1990s arguing that the industry needed to be more involved in DEMS oversight. The case has gone through multiple hearings (details below), resulting in a court order that requires DEMS scientists to turn over all data related to DEMS, including drafts of scientific papers based on that data, to the mining coalition and to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, which claims jurisdiction over the study. The coalition and committee have the right to review the data for 90 days prior to publication.

Notice that here we have the classic MO for taking on science you don’t like: of course the mining industry argued the study was flawed. What else are they going to say? And if the study is in fact scientifically flawed, is the solution really to have the papers reviewed by lawyers and scientists hired by the mining industry? Anyway, the result is that a third party which had no role in funding the study has been able to bully the NIH into allowing it to review the results before publication. (If you don’t have the legal muscle to take on a national funding agency, you can always sue individual scientists for libel., or, if you happen to be an attorney general, you can subpoena a scientist’s every email, grant application, and hand-written notes. )

You can argue that, since the outcome of studies like this have a potentially huge impact on specific industries, it’s only fair that these industries get fair warning of the outcome. Well sure, but not at the expense of the integrity of the scientific process. And the mining industry can say what it wants about the appropriate policy action, but it should keep its fingers out of the science.

But instead of merely lobbying heavily at the regulatory policy-writing stage, the mining industry (like other powerful players in many other versions of this story) has decided that is a more effective strategy to gum up the works at the level of scientific publication, telling international journal editors that they can’t publish or even peer-review certain manuscripts without the permission of a U.S. Federal judge in Louisiana.

But come on, even without making the requisite reference to Galileo, we know that this strategy of science denial is always a loser in the long-run, because, as Feynman sez, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” We’re just fooling ourselves.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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