Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fortune article details possible conflict of interest in local bee research

Posted By on Tue, Oct 12, 2010 at 11:15 AM

Local bee researcher Jerry Bromenshenk made front-page news at home and across the country last week when his new study purported to discover the possible cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, which is threatening the world's honeybee population. But according to Fortune contributor Katherine Eban in an Oct. 8 story, titled "What a scientist didn't tell The New York Times about his study on bee deaths," Bromenshenk failed to disclose one of his main funding sources.

The long list of possible suspects has included pests, viruses, fungi, and also pesticides, particularly so-called neonicotinoids, a class of neurotoxins that kills insects by attacking their nervous systems. For years, their leading manufacturer, Bayer Crop Science, a subsidiary of the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG (BAYRY), has tangled with regulators and fended off lawsuits from angry beekeepers who allege that the pesticides have disoriented and ultimately killed their bees. The company has countered that, when used correctly, the pesticides pose little risk.

A cheer must have gone up at Bayer on Thursday when a front-page New York Times article, under the headline "Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery," described how a newly released study pinpoints a different cause for the die-off: "a fungus tag-teaming with a virus." The study, written in collaboration with Army scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center outside Baltimore, analyzed the proteins of afflicted bees using a new Army software system. The Bayer pesticides, however, go unmentioned.

What the Times article did not explore — nor did the study disclose — was the relationship between the study's lead author, Montana bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, and Bayer Crop Science. In recent years Bromenshenk has received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination. Indeed, before receiving the Bayer funding, Bromenshenk was lined up on the opposite side: He had signed on to serve as an expert witness for beekeepers who brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer in 2003. He then dropped out and received the grant.

Bromenshenk responded to Eban's story by defending his study, which did not examine the impact of pesticides. "It wasn't on the table because others are funded to do that," he told her, adding no Bayer funds were used on the new study.

Bromenshenk vociferously denies that receiving funding from Bayer (to study bee pollination of onions) had anything to do with his decision to withdraw from the plaintiff's side in the litigation against Bayer. "We got no money from Bayer," he says. "We did no work for Bayer; Bayer was sending us warning letters by lawyers."

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