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Letter from the Editor

There used to be a W.R. Grace factory in Acton, Massachusetts, that made concrete additives, sealing compounds, and plastic battery parts. In 1973, people in the area started complaining about unpleasant odors. It would take them several years to find out that W.R. Grace was dumping waste, including benzene, vinylidene chloride, and heavy metals, into unlined pits. From there it was seeping into the ground.

In 1980, Sheldon Krimsky, an assistant professor at nearby Tufts University, got a grant to study local environmental policymaking. He sent his students to Acton with microphones and notebooks, and they learned that two hydrogeologic studies had been performed on the town's wells. The first, commissioned by the community, found that W.R. Grace had contaminated the wells. The second had been commissioned by W.R. Grace to disprove the first. Krimsky and his students concluded that it is a good idea for communities to secure their own research funds.

"The company did not like this report," recalls Krimsky. Representatives of W.R. Grace started showing up when he gave talks. The vice president of the Acton plant asked Jean Mayer, then president of Tufts, to block the report's release and fire Krimsky.

Mayer refused. "But years later," says Krimsky, now tenured and a national expert on ethics in science and public policy, "it occurred to me that if this company had had a stronger foothold at the university -- if they had been big donors or had been on the board -- then I couldn't be sure that the president would have been so willing to pat them on the back and tell them that Tufts believed in academic freedom."

That epiphany started Krimsky on an investigation of industry's growing role in academia since 1980. In that year Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which allows universities to patent findings from research funded by the government. The law has led many universities to view science as a source of commercial enterprises -- and to form closer relationships with the business world, from ordinary funding and board connections to direct partnerships, such as the controversial 1998 deal that gave Novartis privileged access to plant biology research at the University of California-Berkeley. Corporate funding for academic research has grown faster over the past three decades than funding from any other source.

Many academics believe, in good faith, that corporate funding does not influence their findings. But evidence suggests otherwise. A 1999 study found that 38 percent of pharmaceutical research sponsored by nonprofits reached unfavorable conclusions about the drugs being investigated; for company-sponsored research, the figure was 5 percent.

In the cover story of this issue of OnEarth, Bob Burtman looks at another aspect of the same problem: What if a medical research institute, located in a community heavily polluted by industry, were generously funded by those same local industries? Would it take a public interest in the effects of the pollution? Or would it look the other way, leaving the community on its own?

As Krimsky puts it: "Once academic research centers turn that corner, and develop institutional conflicts of interest with polluters, where else do we go for independent scientific assessment? That would be the demise of public-interest science."

Kathrin Day Lassila

OnEarth. Spring 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council