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Defending Oneself from 'Product Defense'

Taken for Granted
Kelly Krause, AAAS

The choice of a field ranks among scientists' most important career decisions, influencing the course of their intellectual development and sometimes their personal well-being. University of California (UC), Berkeley, developmental endocrinologist Tyrone Hayes has been studying frogs since high school. Because of that choice, he has spent the last decade not only pursuing research in amphibian development but also defending his work and his reputation against attacks orchestrated by a large corporation. (Science Careers wrote about Hayes's work and family life in this 2005 profile.)

As Rachel Aviv reports in The New Yorker, documents from a court case detail efforts by Syngenta, which manufactures the popular and profitable weed killer atrazine, to "discredit Hayes," as one of the documents puts it. Aviv highlights a scientific career field that is new to me: product defense. Scientists working in this field use their expertise to "give [companies] the power to put [their] best data forward," according to a slogan Aviv quotes. Aviv mentions David Schwartz, a neuroscientist with a Princeton Ph.D. who works at Innovative Science Solutions—"a leading scientific consulting firm serving the worldwide pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device industries," as the company's website puts it—who critiqued a paper (not by Hayes) that found a relationship in humans between atrazine and male sexual development.

These scientists look for ways to cast doubt on research that their clients regard as unfavorable.

That relationship is not beneficial. Since 2002, Hayes has documented abnormalities in the reproductive systems of male frogs exposed to the chemical. Some labs have reported failure to replicate Hayes's results; in an interview for an article I wrote in 2003, Hayes told me that all those labs were "funded by the company that makes atrazine."

I do a lot of interviews, but Hayes made a particularly strong impression when I spoke with him for that 2003 article. He was intense, dynamic, and engaging. He had a meteoric career, students who adored him, and data that were making national news. The fact, noted by Aviv, that he comes from a family of modest educational attainment makes his swift ascent through elite academe—Harvard University bachelor's degree, UC Berkeley Ph.D. in 3.5 years followed by a tenure-track job, and tenure by 30—all the more impressive.

What really stood out in that interview, though, was Hayes's passion for his research—the fascination of it, the importance of the connection he has discovered, and the opportunity to use field and lab work as vehicles for teaching. He recruits students for his laboratory, he told me, based on their "enthusiasm," and he isn't only interested in training professional scientists. That passion, Aviv suggests, is why Hayes has stuck with his atrazine work through all these years, despite Syngenta's campaign to damage his credibility.

As our colleague Eli Kintisch reported at ScienceInsider in 2010, Hayes has expressed his intense feelings about the struggle with Syngenta in some decidedly unacademic language. In a highly unusual ethics complaint it made to Hayes's university, the company produced 102 pages of colorful communiqués Hayes had e-mailed to its employees; UC Berkeley "declined" to take action against Hayes, Aviv writes. "All parties have an equal responsibility to act professionally," a university attorney wrote to Syngenta. Hayes's UC Berkeley colleague David Wake called the e-mails "quite hilarious," Aviv adds.

Many people, I suspect, would have made a choice different from Hayes's in the face of such strong opposition, but courage like his is not exactly rare in science. The efforts by tobacco and energy companies to refute research on lung cancer and climate change, respectively, show that such opposition is an occupational hazard for scientists who find connections that may threaten profits. Scientists commonly stand up to such efforts—but other scientists instead apply their abilities to furthering companies' aims.

For a compelling look at what such campaigns can mean for a scientist's life and career, you can read Aviv's profile here.