Partisan Fights Over Science Funding Likely to Reemerge on Capitol Hill

Agency with history of controversial findings is in the spotlight

RoundUp bags in front of an agricultural sprayer / Getty Images
February 5, 2018

A long-simmering partisan feud over the role of science in government research, regulatory decisions, and funding will come to the forefront again when the House Science Committee meets Tuesday for a hearing on the most widely used herbicide in the world.

The hearing, titled "In Defense of Scientific Integrity: Examining the IARC Monograph Programme and Glyphosate Review," could have extended impacts on how the federal government funds scientific research and how that research is used.

Glyphosate is the key ingredient in RoundUp, the popular weed killer sold to both suburban homeowners and farms that use it to increase crop yields.

Researchers have been testing whether the product has any cancer-producing qualities, but the testing has generated multiple controversies. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is under the microscope for classifying the chemical as a "probable carcinogen."

"[IARC's methods are] not really useful for drawing conclusions, and it's also been very politically driven. So we're getting some assessments that are really junk science, and they're taking things off the market as a result," said Angela Logomasini, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Logomasini says IARC uses a system that assesses hazard instead of risk, which she asserts, "is not really useful in drawing conclusions."

Case in point, the state of California added glyphosate to their list of chemicals known to cause cancer last summer, based in large part based on IARC research. The agribusiness giant Monsanto, which owns RoundUp, is challenging that finding in court. Because of California's Prop 65, RoundUp now must be sold in the state with a warning. Prop 65 has been in the headlines recently because coffee may soon come with a cancer warning label in the state.

Numerous other agencies which have studied the glyphosate have found it safe to use.

Last year, an exposé by Rueters showed that the final findings issued by IARC left out key research. One of the scientists from IARC admitted in a deposition that if the alternate research data had been included, it would have likely changed the final determination. The affair sparked a letter of inquiry from the House Oversight Committee, and saw the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee pursing their own investigation.

Other findings by the agency have created significant media dustups, such as their assessment that red meats are "probably carcinogenic."

Aside from the focal issue of glyphosate, broader themes of how the government uses science are likely to be explored in the hearing as well.

"There's a whole host of conflict of interest issues that should be examined," Logomasini said, further adding that critics believe many of the cancer research agencies have become too close to activist groups in recent years.

"I don't think that just because somebody has a perspective or works for an industry they should automatically be excluded, but certainly [the committee needs] to be looking at those conflicts of interest and eliminating people with really obvious ones, especially if they're not being honest about it."

Published under: California , Regulation