Science For Sale: Ecologists Call Colleagues 'Biostitutes'

Erik Kiviat knows where the endangered Blanding’s turtle lives—and that has made him a popular man in Dutchess County, N.Y On the one hand, environmental groups opposed to a local housing development have offered to pay Kiviat, who is an environmental consultant, to say that the creature is threatened by the project, even though they know perfectly well that no turtles live in the area. On the other hand, the developers have suggested to Kiviat that if he somehow were to find a turt

Nov 28, 1988
Bruce Stutz

Erik Kiviat knows where the endangered Blanding’s turtle lives—and that has made him a popular man in Dutchess County, N.Y On the one hand, environmental groups opposed to a local housing development have offered to pay Kiviat, who is an environmental consultant, to say that the creature is threatened by the project, even though they know perfectly well that no turtles live in the area. On the other hand, the developers have suggested to Kiviat that if he somehow were to find a turtle on their property, they’d pay him to club it and then forget it ever existed.

Kiviat has rejected both requests. He is, he is proud to say, a field biologist turned environmen tal consultant, not a “biostitute”—the harsh term many scientists use to describe members of their profession who will interpret the results of their fieldwork or laboratory analyses with less concern for good science than for what pleases their clients.

Biostitution, say many scientists, is growing along with the booming business in private scientific consulting. Besides real estate developers and environmental activists, industries with toxic wastes to dispose of, state and local governments dealing with proposals for landfills and garbage incineration plants, and the federal superfund—EPA’s project for cleaning up the nation’s worst toxic waste sites—are all hiring consultants to assess environmental concerns or plan cleanups.

While many academic scientists say that any science for hire is able to be corrupt, the fact is that more and more scientists are becoming consultants—if not full time, then moonlighting from jobs at universities or museums. The market for Ph.D.’s in environmental consulting has never been better—from engineers who design pollution control strategies to field biologists like Kiviat.

So how many of these consultants don’t have the scruples of Kiviat? Well, last year congressional hearings investigated why the EPA’s pesticide regulations, eight years in the making, had to be scrapped. Industry lawsuits led to the discovery that the data upon which the EPA developed the regulations, all of it developed by outside contractors, would not stand up to scientific review. Laboratory methods upon which the risk assessments for the pesticides were based had been performed without adequate quality controls.

“Not a piddling matter,” as committee chairman Rep. John D. Dingell (D.-Mich.) put it. The regulations would have controlled 200 million pounds of discharge annually of 900 pesticides and 35 priority pollutants. Committee member Ron Wyden (D.-Oreg.) called it: “A story of contracting run amok.”

Consultants Abound

Certainly there are plenty of financial incentives to offer “biased” results. Eight and a half billion federal dollars will go into superfund cleanups over the next few years, and perhaps 20 times that much is coming from the states and private industries. Consequently, consultants are everywhere and nearly everyone seems to be a consultant.

“They are feeding at the trough,” says Jacqueline Warren, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has challenged the work many consulting firms have done for the EPA.

As a result, finding a good (read: ethical) environmental consultant can be a hit or miss affair. Says NRDC’s Warren: “There’s no certification process, very little quality control, very little monitoring. You hang up a sign and, poof, you’re a consultant.”

As Kiviat notes, consultants who are expert in some areas—say, site planning or hydrology—may not be experienced in another, like field biology. But if the money is there, many will take on the work. He tells of one case where a consultant spent an entire summer along a contaminated Hudson River marsh—a federal and state superfund site—trying to trap contaminated snapping turtles to measure the spread of chemicals through the food chain. The consultant failed, says Kiviat, because he was trying to trap the turtles at the wrong place, at the wrong time of year, and with the wrong gear.

This time, the incompetence was caught. When the consultant based his data on only a few animals, and then billed the state of New York for hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime, the state balked and went to court rather than pay for the shoddy research.

In this case the state won, but not everyone gets caught. An internal audit two years ago of the superfund’s use of contractors found such a lack of accountability that the whole administration of outside contracts was restructured. Employees were hired whose sole job was to monitor the bidding practices and performance of environmental consultants.

“There’s pressure to come up with results to please your client, and that has led to a good deal of dishonesty in the consulting business,” notes Kiviat.

For many would-be scientists consultants the answer is to avoid working for unscrupulous firms by setting up their own companies, with the hope that they can keep aloof from the pressures to perform science for profit. With other, like minded naturalists, Kiviat set up Hudsonia, a nonprofit consulting firm in Annandale, N.Y.

Doug Heimbuch and Fred Jacobs, former biologists for Martin-Marietta, also thought they could cut down on temptation by lowering the stakes. They left the growing pressures of corporate consulting and began their company, Coastal Environmental Services Inc., in offices in East Baltimore. Their idea: to take a smaller piece of the action. But the rewards of the industry are so great that after the first year and a half, the firm billed a million dollars in environmental consulting fees, moved to new offices near the Baltimore-Washington airport, and had a full-time staff of 10 including six Ph.D. scientists. Once again, Heimbuch and Jacobs found themselves in a constant battle to do good science in the face of relentless pressure.

“A client generally hires you because he has a stake in something. And he’s already got the results in mind that are going to be beneficial to his position,” says Heimbuch. So the pressure to give in and synthesize the data on assumptions most favorable to the client is often subtle and difficult to resist. “But a client is better off not having somebody who’ll tell him what he wants to hear, then to later on in court find out that he’s been led astray.”

The sensibilities of scientists like Kiviat and Heimbuch were honed during the environmentally conscious times beginning in the late 1960s. When both started out they had hopes that the burgeoning concern for environmental assessment would lead to a boom for high-quality scientific investigation—that biologists might be able to collect data of scientific quality while still pleasing the clients.

But things have not turned out that way. A Cornell University study of the work done by consultants on the Hudson River, for example, concluded that after nearly two decades, very little has been learned about the way the river’s ecosystem works.

Science, the study concluded, was little improved by the work that had been done. And even when some scientists accomplished good work, the results were lost in great volumes of proprietary information, most of it developed for the power industry—a great, silent scientific literature.

Robert Livingston, director of the Center for Aquatic Research and Resource Management at Florida State University, sees such lost research as perhaps the greatest problem—even greater than biostitution—of the age of science for hire. Privately funded work, he fears, is too often geared to a very narrow range of interests. When each special interest hires its own scientific adviser, scientists get pitted against one another. Then the credibility of both science and the profession can suffer.

For example, consultants who assess plans for garbage incineration plants come in two stripes: those who claim the process is fairly risk free, and those who believe the liabilities outweigh the risks. Almost invariably, the former work for the incineration industry and the latter for environmental groups.

Each accuse the other of bad faith and bad science. Consultants for resource recovery plants, says Richard Denison, a biochemist with the Environmental Defense Fund, “consistently underplay the real risks of incineration.” He accuses them of basing risk assessments for air quality on emission standards the companies have no intentions of meeting. Many of these consultants, says Steven Romalewski of the New York Public Interest Research Group, are nothing more than hired guns for industry. “Their work,” he says, “blurs the line between independent science and advocacy.”

The consulting firm of Konheim and Ketchum, for example, which has analyzed risk assessments for several large municipal incinerator plants also does public relations work for the industry along with developing plans for their incinerators. For her part, Carolyn Konheim who began her career as public advocate for environmen tal causes, says many academic scientists are out of their depth in discussing the technology of incineration. They overdramatize the risk, she says.

To make her point, Konheim cites the charge by one of Denison’s associates that the lead in incinerator ash is as dangerous as the lead in lead-based paint. To Konheim, this charge pointedly ignores the fact that children don’t normally ingest incinerator ash. Denison counters that there are other routes of exposure besides ingestion.

Joseph Seabode, who reviews permit applications for the New York District of the United States Army Corps of Engineers also reviews the work of environmental consultants who plead the case for water-front developers. “When you look at their work, you see very quickly where their interests lie. One sees an acre of wetland where there’s three and the other sees three where there’s one.”

This lack of anything resembling peer review troubles scientists who see problems in quality control in much of the work of scientific consultants. Michael Klemens, a herpetologist at the American Museum of Natural History, says that the minute he sees a consultant’s name on an article, even in a peer-reviewed journal, he immediatley scrutinizes the article more closely. He has seen too many consultants try to beat the system, and he says that finding the science beneath all the reports can be a shell game.

“Experimental design can be as biased as the interpretation of the results,” says Klemens. “It’s a matter of how questions are asked, how the studies are set up. Very often the science isn’t there. That’s why many firms seem to spend as much on presentation of their results as they do on the studies themselves, designing charts and graphs to impress planning boards.”

Has he ever been asked to skew his point of view to support or condemn a project? Sure, but “they don’t ask me anymore,” he says. “They know I don’t turn tricks.”

Despite such bitter references to their alleged biostitution, many science consultants defend themselves by pointing to the fact that peer review science is not above reproach and argue that the competition for research funding often presents its own moral dilemmas for scientists. But the Kiviats, the Klemenses, the Denisons, and the Livingstons aren’t convinced they are more concerned that a lot of opportunities to do good science are going to waste, the victim of science done at the behest of narrow private interests. The small questions get answered, the permits are granted, the planning boards are appeased, they concede. But the next client comes along before the larger questions ever get asked.

Bruce Stutz is a writer and senior editor at the magazine Natural History.