IARC, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is a mighty battleship ready to wage war against any government agency, company or science communicator that gets in its way. But as it has recently received several torpedo direct hits, its captain, Christopher Wild has ordered his ship straight into a battle likely to sink the entire agency. Respectable scientists have mutinied, a militant skeletal crew remains and has upped its propaganda. It seems they are considering a last ditch ramming attack that will bring down the reputation of all regulatory science with them.
IARC’s captain, Chris Wild, is not fit to lead the agency and every day he continues to struggle on through this crisis of confidence of his own doing, is one day closer to IARC’s 25 member countries pulling out and shutting the entire agency down. He should have resigned long ago, and as IARC lurches from one crisis to the next, as it picks battles rather than making concessions, its path of destruction is widening. The agency has become a ship-wreck, soon to be unsalvageable.
What follows are six reasons why Chris Wild must be fired. Any single one would be reason enough in a normal, responsible and accountable institution. That he continues to soldier on despite all six cases shows what a strange place the IARC battleship has become.
1. Wild has brought the scientific risk assessment approach into disrepute
IARC conduct hazard assessments, they acknowledge that, but then strangely present their findings in contrast to government agencies that conduct risk assessments. A hazard-based approach merely identifies that there could be a link between a substance or activity and a harm – it does not look into exposure levels or likelihood of harm (that is part of a risk assessment). Its only value is to indicate to the research community that more investigation should be conducted on exposure, probability and mitigation strategies. For example, when an IARC monograph declared that sunlight was a carcinogenic hazard, the agency left it to each government health agency to consider exposure levels, prevention or significance. No one expects governments to ban people from going out on a sunny day.
A hazard-based assessment, from the policy point of view, is practically worthless (many scientists have published how the hazard process is outmoded for today’s needs). So why has Wild condoned an aggressive campaign against the EFSA, BfR and ECHA glyphosate risk assessments? Often the authors of the glyphosate monograph keep using the word ‘risk’ in place of ‘hazard’.
IARC monograph directors like Kurt Straif and Kate Guyton feel their identification of a remote cancer link from glyphosate exposure in rats is enough evidence to criticise risk assessors for not recommending banning the substance. For risk managers, the toxicity and exposure of this herbicide is so low, and the benefits so high, that any ban would be ridiculous and catastrophic to farmers and consumers. So why couldn’t Wild and his monograph team accept the decisions of all of the world’s risk assessment agencies, all of them, and just move on?
When the EFSA head, Bernhard Url, mentioned that IARC’s hazard studies were used as “screening assessments”, Wild wrote back referring to his agency’s monographs as: “Far from being “screening” assessments, they are comprehensive evaluations based on systematic assembly and review of all publicly available studies.” Fine, but they are still not risk assessments and offer no guidance on hazard exposure management or policy choices.
IARC’s irrational persistence with glyphosate (and promotion of unethical anti-GMO activist campaigners) has confused consumers and raised doubt over the professionalism of regulatory scientists. Their continuous pursuing of this conflation of risk and hazard has damaged the public trust in science. Why would IARC have pushed this twisted regulatory approach?
2. Wild has promoted an extreme anti-industry bias
Imagine being the International Agency responsible for the global efforts of cancer researchers – all researchers – to fight for the cure and you are organising your 50th anniversary conference. You have a budget for 2000 participants so it would make sense to invite all of the important cancer researchers. Given that the pharmaceutical industry has many of the greatest minds in this domain and are making incredible leaps in the fight against cancer, including developing novel vaccines for certain cancers, it would be understandable that at least a third of your invitations should be reserved for these corporate pioneers leading the fight for the cure (with the other 65% for government officials, academics and civil society groups).
Not if you are Chris Wild. Not a single pharmaceutical industry cancer researcher was invited to celebrate or network with the rest of the research community. When I look at the IARC50 Conference List of participants for their big 2016 event, I am literally gobsmacked that no one involved in developing new cancer-fighting products and technologies was allowed to attend. When I had asked people from the pharmaceutical research community about this, their eyes just rolled. I find this not only intolerable, but also indicative of an agency run by self-righteous zealots.
How did this anti-industry bias become core at IARC? Action, Reaction. In the early 2000s, NGOs were highly critical of the agency’s close relationships with industry. Its previous head, Paul Kleihues, had to resign over this and there was a bizarre situation where the former head of IARC, Lorenzo Tomatis, who was one of the first critics of industry influence at IARC, was forbidden from even entering the doors of the agency. See a Lancet exchange at a time when debates on conflict of interest were just beginning to draw attention.
There was a root and branch cleaning of the agency to sterilise anything that had industry residue, new procedures in place against the use of industry data, conflicts of interest and any potential industry influence. What developed, internally, was clearly an anti-industry culture within the agency (so any claims that IARC was being unfair to one of Monsanto’s leading products would be met with quiet satisfaction).
Robert E Tarone highlighted this industry witch-hunt and his concern about excluding dissenting views from the IARC panel selection in a brilliant article.
Evidence from recent Working Groups suggests that steps taken in 2005 to ‘increase transparency’ in the IARC Monograph process because of a perceived undue influence of ‘industrial stakeholders’ (Samet, 2015) may have gone too far. The current process seems at times to be akin to a criminal trial with a prosecutor and a biased jury, but no defense counsel.
This of course is music to NGO activists’ ears as they developed cosy relationships inside the organisation (see point 6). But in the world of cancer research, is it really such a good idea to entirely blacklist the achievements coming out of the pharmaceutical industry? Wild should have seen and acted on the excess of this reaction (unless he has been promoting it).
3. Wild failed to control IARC staffers with agendas
Somewhere along the road, IARC lost sight of what a scientific agency performing hazard assessments should be doing. Scientists should work to add to the body of knowledge, encourage discovery (in this case, research on cancer) and work to improve the quality of life. It is quite possible that people who work for an extended period of time for international agencies get pulled into circles of competing interests, learn to fight rather than engage, speak rather than listen and condemn rather than embrace. Such seems to be the case for IARC’s monograph team, led by the perpetually caustic Kurt Straif and Kate Guyton (the embattled lead author to the glyphosate Monograph 112).
The glyphosate monograph was not simply a hazard assessment – it somehow became a crusade against the pesticide industry in general and Monsanto in particular. So we see Straif and Guyton speaking to groups with interests in banning pesticides. Straif gave a interview on Euronews where he suggested that EFSA’s use of industry-generated data (re: Monsanto) was a cause for concern. Guyton had even assured an anti-pesticides NGO, Women in Europe for a Common Future, that there would be a study showing how pesticides are clearly linked to cancer, a full year before the glyphosate working group had even met.
In a European Parliament debate on glyphosate from last year, I asked Straif about Portier’s conflict of interest with the Environmental Defense Fund. See my question at the 3:25.40 mark and Straif’s rather testy response at 3:28.10. He passionately listed all of Portier’s achievements (without notes) and appeared to feel quite insulted by my question. Portier was more than a panel member and we saw from his deposition and what has become known as the Portier Papers that he was actually a good friend serving as IARC’s glyphosate mercenary in the battle against EFSA and the BfR.
These scientists were clearly unbridled and have discredited not only IARC, but the public trust in science-based regulation. There should have been some scrutiny on them.
4. Chris Wild condoned unscientific shenanigans
The IARC Monograph 112 on glyphosate has been widely panned by the scientific community. They excluded valuable scientific resources, and even the studies they used were criticised by the authors saying, for example, that IARC got it “totally wrong”. Alarm bells should surely have gone off when the glyphosate working group chair, Aaron Blair, admitted that had the comprehensive American Agricultural Health Study been included in the IARC discussions, the working group’s conclusions would have surely changed.
The standard stump response from IARC is that they only use documents in the public domain. This is an outright lie; their panel members often have to sign confidentiality agreements when they consider unpublished or proprietary data. What Straif and Guyton meant to say is that the monograph process only considers documents that confirm their desired outcome.
This week we learnt that IARC had changed evidence and “edited out” findings to make the IARC glyphosate monograph conclusions look more convincing. Unknown people, likely inside IARC, inserted new statistical analyses that the panel had not considered while deleting other agreed-upon statements in the draft that had rejected glyphosate’s connections to certain cancers. In one ten-page IARC glyphosate monograph chapter, there were ten important edits not agreed upon in the draft validated during the working group panel meetings.
Cover-up? IARC boasts how its transparent process makes other agencies and institutes look biased and unprofessional. So one had to wonder why the lead author of the glyphosate monograph, Kate Guyton, last autumn ordered US-based IARC panel members to not release internal draft documents from the working group and to not comply with standard American Freedom of Information requests (ie, to not be transparent). I suspect she was trying to cover up the changes the internal team had made to the evidence agreed upon by the glyphosate working group panel members.
To be quite honest, in the short time these working groups meet and the volume of data presented before them, the IARC working groups have very little opportunity to discuss or do anything significant. In other words, the IARC monographs are essentially the internal work of IARC members and sub-contracted experts (like Christopher Portier who was a visiting scholar at IARC for six months the year before the glyphosate monograph meeting). The actual gathering of the panelists is more demonstrative than productive – a hollow validation process.
- Anyone with an ounce of scientific integrity would have seen the problem of the lack of evidence in the glyphosate monograph, the changes made to the final document and the demands of Kate Guyton to the US researchers to not disclose or share any IARC documents or respond to US Freedom of Information requests, the aggressive behaviour IARC has officially taken towards other agencies, the engagement of Christopher Portier as a mercenary … and taken this as an opportunity to clean up the agency.
- Anyone with respect for the quality of regulatory science would have retracted Monograph 112 (on glyphosate) once it was clear that not all of the relevant research was being considered (including the data of the American AHS study).
- Anyone with a sense of respect for the reputation of regulatory science would have taken responsibility a long time ago and would have resigned.
5. Wild has not enforced an ethical code of conduct
Recent revelations have called into question the ethical standards at play in IARC. The recent Reuters report highlights how documents agreed upon by working group panels are then changed after the meetings have been concluded. Are there any standards for academic integrity in IARC? Editing out decisions made by an independent panel is not like putting filters on an Instagram photo. This is a grave violation of the scientific process and shows how the transparency Chris Wild loves to crow about, clearly does not exist in IARC.
The recent Portier Papers deposition revealed an agency that did not manage or select members according to any standards of achievement or quality. Portier admitted that prior to arriving at the glyphosate working group meeting, he “had not looked at any of the scientific evidence on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate”. On what basis and on which qualifications was Portier selected to be the “special adviser” to the Monograph 112 panel? We saw above there were indications of a clear friendship between Portier and Straif, but nepotism is not an ethically acceptable standard for working group involvement.
More troubling is the discovery, from my research into the Portier Papers exposé, how deeply rooted the revolving door is at IARC. Portier essentially left the glyphosate working group meeting and, in the very same week, went to a law firm to sign a lucrative contract as a litigation consultant in the lawsuits against Monsanto. He also admitted signing a second contract to advise on litigation advice related to another undisclosed IARC panel he had served on.
Class action law firms in the US rely on IARC publishing “scientific” decisions on cancer, which they then translate into the bases for personal damage lawsuits against corporations (as seen with cases like talc, solvents, diesel fumes, welding fumes, mobile phones and now glyphosate). These law firms are paying high fees (around 500 USD/h) for IARC panel members to represent them and add scientific credibility to their lawsuits.
The potential conflict of interest here is immense, especially given how these class action law firms demand strict non-disclosure agreements and are secretive by nature. What IARC does not have is a clear standard code of conduct for panel members (like a cooling off period before scientists can work for law firms) or clear vetting that their experts and panel members are not already representing litigation firms before attending IARC working groups (Portier admitted he had been in contact with a law firm at least two months before the glyphosate panel).
The strange thing is that IARC was considering such ethical controls during this beleaguered agency’s last crisis in 2004:
To prevent bias on monograph working-group panels, Kleihues says, IARC may soon change the policy to bar anyone from serving as a voting or nonvoting participant who in the previous 5 years has received funds from companies with a financial stake in the outcome.
Personal damage law firms have a clear financial stake in the outcome of any IARC panel (in fact, IARC has become their bread and butter!). To prevent interests being exploited, there should also be a five year period after working group panels meet to keep predatory lawyers from exploiting the agency’s reputation and compromising regulatory science.
I would be very surprised if IARC officials were not aware of how these litigation vultures are using IARC monographs to trawl for victims and exploit companies for high settlement fees. If they had any concern for scientific credibility, IARC would be working to prevent this misuse.
IARC has an ethics committee, but it does not seem to have been called in for any of these points.
6. Wild used activists to attack other agencies
I sometimes wonder if Chris Wild has been betrayed by the subversive activities of his communications team who have shown no hesitation to get into the mud and battle other agencies via a cabal of activists, lobbyists and anti-industry cranks posing as journalists.
In Europe these days, if you are an agency, a scientist or an activist, and you find yourself in a spot of bother, it seems you merely need to pay a visit to the two Stéphanes (Horel and Foucart) and they will print whatever you want them to say into a two-page Le Monde exclusive. Christopher Wild gave them an interview where he tried to come across as a victim, maligned by Monsanto and heroically fighting on. The outrage of the Monsanto Papers set just the right tone for such pity-mongering.
In late 2015 to early 2016, when it became apparent that the scientific community wasn’t buying the anti-industry work IARC was selling on glyphosate, the agency communications team went into high gear attacking other agencies who challenged them (not something a respectable agency should be doing). This was the time of the famous Chris Portier “Your agencies know squat!” letter to the European Commission (which we now know was funded by two law firms suing Monsanto). In March, 2016, Stéphane Foucart published an attack on EFSA’s position which struck me as a bit curious as it contained information about IARC that could only have been fed directly to him from internal IARC documents. Was IARC feeding information to an anti-pesticide activist in order to discredit EFSA? Le Monde threatened to sue me if I continued with these allegations (I had to change a few words but the blog and the accusation still stand).
When Reuters published a piece that questioned IARC’s transparency and scientific conduct, rather than rising above as most would expect a scientific agency to do, IARC not only jumped into the mud-pit with a press release, they even added a screenshot that tried to link Reuters to supporting the Monsanto-Bayer merger. Then they enlisted the anti-industry campaigners to spread the word. Unfortunately, the American anti-Monsanto lobbyist, USRTK’s Carey Gillam, accidentally pushed the “Defend IARC” button four hours before the press release was actually released.
Using a crew of attack dogs to deal with your scientific defence is something the Risk-Monger deals with on a daily basis (it’s called “twitter”), but one would expect a sort of dignified propriety from a UN agency.
A responsible head of a UN agency would need to project an image of respect and professionalism. One who condones a “Release the dogs on ’em” approach is not at all credible (and not worthy).
A little technical problem: You can’t fire a dictator
In any responsibly run, accountable organisation, Christopher Wild would have been fired at least two years ago (when IARC started trying to bully EFSA and the BfR). But IARC is not an agency accountable to anyone. It is often claimed to be part of the WHO and thus a UN agency. That means simply that in the 1960s, with French President de Gaulle’s pressure during a WHO plenary, IARC was recognised to be their cancer research arm. What does this mean?
IARC is autonomously funded by 25 Member States to whom they answer. Should there be corruption or mismanagement, there would be very little that the WHO could do. Given that the WHO just named (but since retracted) Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador, there seems to be little risk of any intervention or corruption shaming from the WHO in any case.
In order to impose a more responsible management on IARC, with greater respect for science and other regulatory agencies, several IARC Member States would have to take a stand or even leave the agency. Most national government health agencies, though, have close personal ties and involvement with individuals in IARC and appreciate the statistical data they generate, so seeing a walk-out of members would be highly unlikely (although it is possible that the monograph programme, which is, quite frankly, useless, may be defunded by the US in the coming months).
So it looks unlikely that any IARC Member States or the WHO would move to fire Chris Wild. He is answerable to no one and it seems that he will continue to soldier on with the present poor scientific methodology, internal misbehaviour and aggressive media assault on the reputation of regulatory science. One can only hope that at some point he will recognise that these failures at IARC ultimately land on his desk and for that he must take the ultimate responsibility.
Your ship is sinking Chris! A brave and noble fighter believes he should go down with the ship. A responsible scientist concerned to preserve an agency and stop undermining cancer research would step down and let others try to salvage the reputation of regulatory science. The time to leave was last year. Don’t prolong the pain anymore.