From the Editors - Scientists Must be Held Responsible and Protected by Law
Large corporate payouts do not absolve individual responsibility
From time to time, corporations are ordered
to pay large damages to people harmed by their products, not because of faults
in the manufacturing but because the products themselves are dangerous. Recently,
for example, the US Supreme Court ruled that Philip Morris has to pay an award
of $150 million to a single plaintiff, the widow of a smoker who died more
than ten years ago . In 2007, the pharmaceutical giant Merck agreed to
pay $4.85 billion to settle lawsuits brought against it in the US by people
who suffered heart attacks or strokes after taking the painkiller Vioxx  (see Vioxx, A Mercky Story,
are especially significant because it is very hard to win damages in such
cases. In the first place, it means going to court against an opponent with
very deep pockets, and this is only feasible in countries like the US where
class actions are allowed and lawyers can act on a “no win no fee” basis.
Merck has so far spent over a billion dollars on legal expenses relating to
Vioxx . Second, it is not always easy to prove that the product was responsible
for whatever harm suffered. Was Mr X’s heart attack the result of taking a
drug, or would he probably have had a heart attack anyway? Did Ms Y commit
suicide because she was taking antidepressants, or did she just have suicidal
Even when the
product is to blame, the manufacturers are not liable unless
they knew, or ought to have known, that it was dangerous. The heirs of a smoker
who died of lung cancer cannot demand damages for harm that was done before
the company that sold him the cigarettes could reasonably have been expected
to know that smoking causes lung cancer. This is where scientific/medical
researchers have a special responsibility.
Scientists carry pivotal responsibility
The researchers are generally the first to
know of any problems. They are in a privileged position to acquire new data,
to evaluate existing data without bias, and
to inform the company, the public and policy-makers accordingly.
If they have failed in doing so, then they too ought to be held responsible,
but generally they are not, due partly to a misconception that science and
scientists are somehow above the law. And this is unfortunate, because it
has the effect of encouraging if not rewarding irresponsible science and scientists
while penalising those scientists who do take their responsibility seriously,
even at the risk of losing their jobs or research grants (see later).
Individuals largely immune from prosecution in case of dangerous products
It is striking that the lawsuits and threatened
prosecutions have been directed at companies when it is people that take decisions.
To be sure, under the law, a company is treated almost like a person, and
in many ways this actually makes sense. For one thing, obtaining redress would
be even harder if you had to identify which individual within the company
was actually responsible for the harm, and even then it would be very difficult
actually to collect any award that was made.
All the same,
it does seem remarkable that none of those responsible is prosecuted, whereas
this is generally what happens when people are suspected of being grossly
negligent or worse.
After four people were killed
in the Hatfield derailment in the UK in 2001, the government
ordered an inquiry and both the companies and individuals responsible for
track maintenance were charged.
While the charges against the individuals were later dropped, it left engineers
and others in positions of responsibility in no doubt about the consequences
of negligence, to themselves and their careers. Many other people can find
themselves in court, including teachers who have not taken proper care of
pupils on an outing or drivers who have caused serious accidents by their
Yet when it
comes to products that can be inherently dangerous such as drugs,
pesticides, foods, and cigarettes,
the investigation is largely left to the victims, and the individuals responsible
seem immune from prosecution. Those who believe they were harmed by Vioxx,
for example, have been left to fight their case in court at their own expense;
the UK government has explicitly taken the
line that this is a matter “properly for the judicial system” and is not allowing legal
from prosecution may help explain one of the most worrying features of these
cases: the companies never seem to show any remorse about what has happened,
or give an undertaking that it won’t happen again. When Merck and Elsevier
were found to have published a fake scientific journal promoting Merck products,
Elsevier, the publishing company, acknowledged that they had not lived up
to their usual standards, but Merck were totally unrepentant , as were
the individuals responsible.
There were rare exceptions from immunity
It is significant that the same immunity
does not always apply to government officials or the scientists
involved. In the 1980s, many haemophiliacs were infected with HIV/AIDs because
the people in charge were too slow to recognise the danger and continued to
accept blood donations from high risk groups and to use blood that had not
been heat treated. Officials
in several countries were charged with offences such as negligence for not
acting soon enough. Two scientists in the French blood transfusion service
were sentenced to prison terms  and the then Minister of Health was also
convicted, though no sentence was passed.
in the USA - Bayer, Baxter International, Rhône-Poulenc
and Alpha Therapeutic - agreed to pay $660 million to more than 6 000 haemophiliacs
who had become infected. In contrast, no charges were brought
against any employees of these or any other companies. Only in Japan were
drug-company executives charged as individuals .
Scientists should be held responsible and protected by law for telling
Companies seldom if ever apologise for what
went wrong, or announce that the employees responsible are to be sacked, starting
with the scientists researching the product, the head of research, the head
of marketing, and up to the CEO. In this ‘chain of command’, it is the research
scientists at root that hold the ultimate responsibility. If they fail to
perform their research and interpret their findings with competence, care,
and integrity, or worse, if they engage in manipulating, dismissing, or falsifying
key research results, they should be liable to prosecution. But if their research
had been properly conducted and the findings honestly reported, then those
others in positions of responsibility are surely culpable, and especially
so if they abuse their positions to dismiss or suppress the research findings;
which is all too often the case.
is unconscionable and intolerable that scientists who do take their responsibility
seriously are invariably victimised. Shiv Chopra is one of three Health Canada scientists who testified before a Senate
Committee in 1998 that Health Canada managers had pressured them to release
suspect veterinary drugs into the food chain without the evidence of safety,
as required by Canada’s Food
and Drugs Act. These revelations led to the widespread rejection
of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBST) for boosting milk production of
dairy cattle in Europe and Canada even though it had been already approved in the USA. Chopra and the other scientists lost their job, and ligations
continue to this day . In August 2008, Chopra and fellow scientists were
vindicated as massive and sustained rejection of rBST worldwide forced Monsanto
to stop producing and selling the hormone .
We have featured
a number of other
scientists who tried to tell the public what they know: Arpad Pusztai (Pusztai
Publishes Amidst Fresh Storm of Attack - The Sorry State of ‘Sound Science’.
ISIS News 3)
, Nancy Olivieri (Big Business = Bad Science?
ISIS News 9/10) , David Healy ( The Depressing Side of Medical Science,
SiS 39 , Aubrey Blumsohn
(Actonel: Drug Company Keeps Data from
Collaborating Scientists, SiS
30) , and Irina
Ermakova (GM Soya Fed
Rats: Stunted, Dead, or Sterile, SiS
. Without exception, they found not just the corporations, but the universities
and the scientific establishment
turned against them.
scientists in the US submitted a statement to the Environment
Protection agency protesting the “technology/stewardship agreements” they
have to sign in order to obtain GM seeds. As a result, “no truly independent
research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the
[genetic modification] technology.”  (see Corporate Monopoly
of Science, SiS 42).
At the same
time, the hazards of GMOs are being ignored despite the large amount of evidence
that has accumulated [15, 16] (GM is Dangerous and Futile.
SiS 40; GM Science Exposed.
ISIS CD book). The evidence includes
the extreme toxicity of the world’s top selling herbicide glyphosate and its
Roundup formulations currently used on more than 80 percent of GM crops grown
globally [17, 18] (Ban Glyphosate
Herbicides Now, and Glyphosate
Herbicide Could Cause Birth Defects, SiS 43), that
should be banned immediately.
A culture has
developed that systematically condones, encourages, and rewards scientific
irresponsibility while penalising conscientiousness and integrity. If we expect
scientists and the corporations to act responsibly, we must ensure that the
incentives point them in that direction.
The people who
decide whether to continue marketing tobacco or other dangerous
products, or to go ahead with a drug, who decide what trials to carry out,
what information to pass on to the regulator, even what information to share
with their academic collaborators, have a very important duty of care to the
public. They should know that if they are grossly negligent, or especially
if they deliberately conceal relevant information, then they are liable to
the same sorts of penalties that others can expect when they fail in this