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Top Choice for French Post Drops Out in Industry Flap

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Science  07 Feb 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6171, pp. 586-587
DOI: 10.1126/science.343.6171.586
Pulling out.

Paolo Boffetta says he doesn't want to have a "mud fight" over his corporate funding.


France's premier epidemiology institute thought it had a strong candidate to become its new director. Paolo Boffetta, an Italian epidemiologist, spent 18 years at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an authoritative World Health Organization body in Lyon, France. An author on more than 900 papers, Boffetta is now director of the Institute for Translational Epidemiology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He had already helped develop a 5-year plan for the French institute, the Center for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health (CESP) in Villejuif, which was submitted for an external review. But Boffetta also has ties to industry that some of his colleagues view as routine—but others regard as disqualifying him from the job.

Now, Boffetta's move from New York to the Paris suburbs, planned for 2015, is off. In stories in the French newspaper Le Monde in December and January, colleagues voiced concerns that Boffetta downplayed cancer risks from several substances while receiving money from industries that would benefit from such conclusions. CESP is run jointly by the French biomedical research agency INSERM and Université Paris-Sud. Jacques Bittoun, the president of that university, says that three out of 13 CESP team leaders had planned to leave if Boffetta got the job. A French association of asbestos victims had also protested the impending appointment.

Boffetta does not deny that industry funds some of his research; refusing that income stream would be "short-sighted," he says. But he initially defended his candidacy. "To suggest that I make up my conclusions depending on the funding sources does not only profoundly insult my scientific integrity, but it goes against empirical evidence," he wrote in a 15 January note to CESP staff that Science has seen. Catherine Hill, a cancer epidemiologist at Institut Gustave Roussy in Villejuif who worked with Boffetta on a 2007 IARC assessment of cancer causes in France, praises Boffetta's "seriousness" and rejects the idea that money could cloud his judgment.

But on 28 January, Boffetta wrote INSERM and the university that he was withdrawing his candidacy. "The job was more political than I expected," Boffetta says. "I'm happy to engage in discussion on the scientific aspects of my work, but not in a mud fight."

The controversy reflects wider disagreements among epidemiologists on how to deal with potential conflicts of interest, says Neil Pearce, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and past-president of the International Epidemiological Association. "It seems that at least in France, if not in Europe, it's not enough to declare conflicts of interests to be fully credible on subjects as serious as the health effects of potentially toxic products," Bittoun says. "In fact, it is preferable not to have any at all."

Boffetta's work on diesel was one of the flashpoints. In June 2012, IARC officially classified diesel exhaust as carcinogenic based on a 700-page review of the literature. That same month, Boffetta published a paper online in Critical Reviews in Toxicology concluding that the available studies had methodological weaknesses and that as a result, "the weight of evidence is considered inadequate to confirm the diesel-lung cancer hypothesis."

As he acknowledged in the paper, Boffetta's study was supported by the Mining Awareness Resource Group (MARG), a group of mining companies and engine manufacturers. MARG had tried to stop the publication of two diesel studies in court for years, a battle it eventually lost. Boffetta says he didn't know about MARG's tactics at the time he submitted his paper. He calls them "profoundly wrong," adding that he has since stopped working with the group. But he says the funding in no way changed his views.

In other papers, Boffetta contested the carcinogenicity of substances such as dioxin and beryllium, while acknowledging funding from companies that expose their workers to them. Paolo Vineis, an environmental epidemiologist at Imperial College London, says there is a "pattern" of corporate influence in Boffetta's recent output. "When someone supports the point of view of industry against the opinion of scientists working on the IARC monographs, it's difficult to conceive that this person is really independent," Vineis says.

Pearce doesn't think most epidemiologists change their views because of industry funding, but sees another danger: Industry support can give undue visibility to small scientific minorities, something that he says happens in the global warming debate as well. "Scientists say what they really believe […] but industry chooses scientists whose views are predictable because they have […] criticized similar studies in the past, and people get an unbalanced picture of what the consensus is among scientists," he says.

In Boffetta's case, some epidemiologists are also upset by a 2008 paper that they say undermined their field's credibility. In the article, Boffetta and five others highlighted the problem of false positives in epidemiology; as an example, they mentioned a 1993 study suggesting that pesticide residues had caused a breast cancer cluster in New York City, a widely publicized finding that caused a health scare but fell apart in subsequent, bigger studies. The authors called on fellow epidemiologists for more "modesty" and "humility" when interpreting results.

"I think Paolo is completely right to highlight this issue," Hill says. But Vineis, who co-authored a rebuttal piece the following year, says the paper was one-sided and echoed industry's arguments to dismiss epidemiology as a weak discipline. "Indeed, my arguments can be used this way," Boffetta concedes, "but it's better if epidemiologists discuss it. My intention was to make the discipline stronger and less vulnerable to attacks."

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