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Free the Science! 

A UCSF professor organizes a scientific boycott to protest apparent censorship of a study that suggests a link between working at IBM and dying of cancer

Wednesday, Jul 7 2004
There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies on the gears, and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus. And you've got to make it stop.

-- Mario Savio, 1964

There are two compelling issues here. One is freedom to publish -- the type of academic freedom that industry can block, and frequently does. The second is that the boycotters are showing publicly a problem that's seldom discussed, which is that journals can selectively influence the scientific community by rejecting controversial articles, and creating the illusion that there is no significant problem with diseases such as occupational cancer.

-- Dr. Joe LaDou, 2004

I couldn't make it to Sproul Hall when Joan Baez and Mario Savio rallied students to confront UC regents over free speech at the inception of what became nationwide protests against the Vietnam War. I didn't comprehend the ensuing months of disturbance. As a generation of iconoclasts awakened, I slept. Sixteen hours per day.

I attended Cal as a fetus while Mom completed her sociology degree. I was just 5 days old during the regents rally. But if circumstances kept me from witnessing the University of California's first free speech movement, I'm riveted by the second one.

Forty years after the original UC protests implanted suspicion of authority into America's cultural mainstream, a free speech movement led by a UC professor in San Francisco has sought to confront the 21st century's version of a censorial industrial-political machine.

Researchers slated to contribute to the November issue of the medical journal Clinics in Occupational and Environmental Medicine have unanimously withdrawn their submissions in a boycott protesting what they believe may be censorship of a study suggesting a link between employment at IBM semiconductor plants and death by cancer. The study, authored by Dr. Richard Clapp, professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, shows that over the past 45 years, 30,000 IBM employees have suffered higher rates of brain, kidney, and other types of cancer than the overall U.S. population. UCSF professor Joe LaDou, who had been recruited to edit a special issue of the publication, wished to include the study, but was rebuffed by the journal's publisher, Reed Elsevier Group Plc, which said Clinics only prints papers reviewing other research, and not original data such as that contained in Clapp's paper.

LaDou felt Elsevier rejected the paper out of deference to IBM. He contacted the other 13 scientists slated to contribute papers to the issue and organized a boycott.

"As happens in the area of occupational health, they are sensitive to their rapport with industry. Rather than saying they didn't want to go near something with a legal cloud over its head, they just said, 'It didn't meet the requirements of your issue.' I thought they took the easy way out," LaDou says. "All of us who read his paper felt it was an important thing that it be published."

Withdrawing a research paper doesn't exude the drama of forming a human sea around a squad car holding Mario Savio. But it has become such a commonplace for corporations to successfully claim the right to conceal important scientific information that this boycott, led by LaDou, director of the International Center for Occupational Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, can be considered revolutionary.

Within a generation, secrecy has become the rule of the day at U.S. universities. Much research is wrapped in exclusivity agreements between research departments and for-profit companies that pay to examine student research long before it is shared with the academic world. Academic journals -- by far the most important scientific information-sharing medium -- sometimes tread gingerly around the interests of large companies that fund scientific research. Journal contributors are known to hide corporate conflicts of interest and disguise industry-friendly research. This concealment disease has acutely beset LaDou's field of occupational medicine.

"For many years scientists have wanted the electronics industry to study cancer in its workers because [electronics firms] have a long history of exposing workers to carcinogens," LaDou said when I spoke with him last week. "Occupational cancer represents 20 to 25 percent of all the cancer in the United States. Yet it's a rarity that an employer has to give a benefit to a victim. It's a rarity that a cancer victim gets workers' comp benefits. When there's successful litigation, it's as a secret settlement that is done out of court, and the information remains secret."

Dr. Richard Clapp, who once helped document a link between Agent Orange used in Vietnam and cancer among veterans, and Rebecca Johnson, a private consultant from Minnesota, conducted the IBM study in support of a class action lawsuit filed by workers at an IBM disk drive plant in San Jose.

During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs in the suit obtained an IBM file that documents IBM worker deaths since 1959. "This was a very unusual situation," Clapp says. "The data I based my analysis on was based on a court order. IBM claimed there was no such thing as a corporate mortality file. It was only because the plaintiffs pursued the issue that they found out that there was such a thing. They got a court order to produce it."

In the eyes of Clapp and LaDou, it was the occupational medicine field's equivalent of a Rosetta stone.

"There were tens of thousands of deaths. It was the largest mortality file ever found in an industry," LaDou says. "When Dr. Clapp was asked to do an analysis of the data, he found a number of instances where cancer risk was increased in IBM employees. There have previously been some very small cancer studies of marginal significance because of their size.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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