University of Montana bee researcher Jerry Bromenshenk has certainly been stung before, but it's probably never been as painful as it was two weeks ago, when a story in Fortune magazine portrayed the widely respected scientist as having conducted a recent study to serve the interests of a former corporate funder.
The story stated that Bromenshenk in recent years received a significant research grant from German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG, whose pesticides are suspected of causing or contributing to Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, a so-far unexplained phenomenon that's resulted in an unprecedented honeybee die-off around the world. The Bayer grant could be why, the story suggests, Bromenshenk's much-publicized peer-reviewed study focused not on Bayer's pesticides but on pathogens, another suspected cause.
Since it was published on Oct. 8, the Fortune story has sparked a flurry of reactions, some calling Bromenshenk a corporate shill and praising the investigative reporter, Katherine Eban. Others defend Bromenshenk's record and dismiss the story as a knee-jerk hit piece. The University of Montana is standing behind Bromenshenk. In fact, it's exploring legal action against Fortune magazine, according to UM's office of legal counsel.
"I really don't want to get into he said/she said," wrote Bromenshenk in an e-mail to Independent; he was unavailable for an interview because of travel. "I'm already getting hate mail on all my e-mail accounts, to my company, and even calls to my home."
Published in the online science journal PLoS One on Oct. 6, the study by Bromenshenk and a team of 17 researchers, including U.S. Army scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland, has been viewed by many as a significant breakthrough in the effort to nail down the cause of CCD. Indeed, The New York Times titled its front-page story, "Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery." The study, through the use of a new tool called mass spectrometry-based proteomics, identifies two pathogens—one of them a virus that nobody had been looking at before—as working in cahoots to kill off bees.
More than anything, it was the Times' story's title, according to Eban, that inspired her follow-up.
"I think to some extent the Times headline was not a good one," Eban tells the Indy, "because, frankly, if it hadn't been on the front page of the Times under that headline, there probably wouldn't have been a follow-up story to do. But the Times really framed it, I think—and a lot of other people think—inaccurately."
Eban points out—as does the Times story—that Bromenshenk's study isn't the final word on CCD. Still not understood is why bees fly away from the hive when they die, and how to develop practices to reduce the pathogens' effects. And she says pesticides remain a possible culprit.
In Eban's story, titled "What a scientist didn't tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths," she reports that Bromenshenk had received a grant from Bayer, dropped out of a class-action lawsuit against Bayer perhaps because of the grant, and that his company, Missoula-based Bee Alert Technology, Inc., stands to profit from a finding that disease, and not pesticides, is harming bees. Not reported in the story is when Bromenshenk received the grant.
Bromenshenk told the Independent he received the grant in 2003. Colin Henderson, a UM researcher, co-author of the study and co-owner of Bee Alert Technology, explains that after UM researchers were successful in training honeybees to detect explosive vapors for the Department of Defense, they were approached by the seed company Sun Seeds Inc. to train bees to prefer to pollinate onions over other surrounding plants. Toward the end of that study, Henderson says, Sun Seeds was acquired by a Dutch company called Nunhems, a subsidiary of Bayer.
"So there's the connection," Henderson says. "And that study was completed four years before anybody had ever heard of colony collapse, so we were really prescient if we were buying into Bayer."
Bromenshenk and Henderson emphasize that the connection to Bayer in no way influences their focus on pathogens instead of pesticides. Henderson says the recent study was funded by beekeepers, national beekeeping associations, the U.S. Army and Montana State University. The study itself acknowledges that Bromenshenk and Henderson's connection to Bee Alert Technology is a competing interest.
Claudia Denker, research compliance officer in UM's office of legal counsel, says the university may pursue legal recourse against Fortune.
"The story that's been issued has some fact in it and has some innuendo in it," says Denker. "What we're trying to do right now is verify that what Dr. Bromenshenk indicates is incorrect about that article is in fact incorrect."
Henderson says the incident points to a problematic reality in academia—that, with public research dollars disappearing, researchers often can't eschew corporate funding.
"It's hard in agricultural research to avoid private firms—the ConAgras and the Monsantos and all the rest—because that's honestly where most of the research and development is going," he says. "The dwindling of USDA research budgets has sort of shifted it to an almost entirely private research basis."
Henderson adds that UM researchers maintain intellectual independence, and, either way, there's always a final arbiter—the Environmental Protection Agency.
But then there's the public's judgment, which, once altered, legal action can't so easily undo. The situation leaves Henderson and Bromenshenk fending off a swarm of critics they never anticipated.
"Honestly," Henderson says, "we feel like we're being persecuted by a fanatic religion. It rises to that level...It tried to stain us and our research with a suggestion of impropriety that doesn't exist."