The Fox Owns the Henhouse—When Public Safety is Governed by Private Profit
“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
― Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451
By José Solís, Ph.D., Guest Contributor
A couple of days ago I stumbled upon a radio interview where the topic was safety and government oversight. I had tuned in at the exact moment when the interviewee said the following:
Well, my experience of 30 years in Washington, D.C. is the same Ronald Reagan had – you know, trust but verify. And when bad things happen, you need to verify if what he is saying is correct. I certainly question that there’s not a cozy relationship. All anyone has to do is look at the revolving door in Washington, D.C., and this agency and the industry to realize that there is a cozy relationship. Now the question is, is that cozy relationship having an adverse impact on the safety decisions being made?
Before I could ascertain what they were discussing in the interview, my mind began to race. Could it be clean water, Round Up pesticide lawsuits, climate change, vaccine safety, the opioid crisis? My question was quickly answered. The forum was an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) with former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman, James Hall, on the investigation into the recent tragedy of two Boeing 737 MAX airline crashes. Upon a rewind of the interview, I kept hearing references to “revolving doors” and “cozy relationships.”
David Greene, host of the show, asked,
But are you saying there are documents that Boeing has showing that they’re – that the company and, potentially the FAA, knew that there were some problems, some of the very problems that may have caused these accidents, and that they certified the aircraft anyway?
Mr. Hall responded,
…the process that we presently have is a self-certification process by the manufacturer of the safety of the aircraft… what has happened is that these decisions have been made in commissions and rulemakings dominated by the industry in Washington, D.C.
As reported by NPR, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) left the safety testing of the plane to the manufacturing company (Boeing) and that this practice could be found “a lot” in the federal government. James Goodwin of the Center for Progressive Reform stated, “The American public would be surprised, and maybe even concerned, if they knew how widespread the practice of self-regulation was.” I wondered what implications this example might carry for aviation safety, agriculture, vaccine safety, and generally for the future of government oversight and scientific inquiry.
Toward the end of the interview, Mr. Greene from NPR stated that recently he had asked FAA head, Dan Elwell, some of the same questions. In one answer, Mr. Elwell responded, “the FAA is an agency that is based on data, and they very much make their decisions, including keeping those planes in the air, based on data.” Dan Elwell, is a former Vice President of the Aerospace Industries Association, representing the most powerful aerospace industry companies. There remain some very tough questions to be answered by the manufacturers of the airline industry, like Boeing, and the “cozy relationship” it and other industry members enjoy with the government agencies responsible for regulating its operations and overseeing its compliance with public safety. But, let’s move on from that thread of public air safety and pause for an overview of the opioid crisis facing the United States.
Public air safety to the opioid crisis
Earlier in March, the 13th to be precise, I saved a copy of the transcript from an interview between David Greene and Brian Mann, an NPR associate, who has been following developments in some of the lawsuits around the nation’s opioid crisis. In its introduction to the interview NPR reported,
The opioid epidemic claimed 70,000 lives in 2017. To put that in perspective, that is more than the number of people who died annually at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And the pharmaceutical industry is going to spend much of this year answering some hard questions. Many blame pharma for our country’s opioid crisis. And this year, big drug makers, as well as pharmacy chains, are facing more than 1,500 lawsuits filed by state and local governments. Billions of dollars are at stake, and so are reputations. Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, CVS – those are just some of the companies targeted in these lawsuits.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Greene: I mean that there are internal company documents that are being made public, and some of them have been controversial, you’ve been finding.
Mann: Purdue executives, for example, can be seen secretly acknowledging that their prescription opioids were far more addictive and dangerous than they were telling doctors. At the same time, company directives kept pushing sales, pushing the salespeople incredibly hard to get more opioids into the hands of vulnerable people, including seniors and military veterans….We’ve also learned that Purdue Pharma executives developed a secret plan they called Project Tango, which they allegedly hoped might help them profit again from the growing wave of opioid addiction. The idea here was to sell addiction treatment services to some of the same people addicted to products like their own OxyContin… Which means for more than a decade, no one in the wider public knew how serious the allegations against Purdue and these other drug companies were. But this time, states and cities suing these companies seem eager to sort of pull back the curtain… the drug industry has fought these disclosures at every turn. They describe the information in these documents as proprietary, basically arguing its corporate property. But as more and more information comes out, it’s making people angry.
On a related topic, Mr. Mann expressed:
But according to the drug company’s own documents, firms including Johnson & Johnson pushed unscientific theories about drug addiction. They did so allegedly to convince doctors to prescribe even more opioids after patients showed signs of dependency. David Armstrong, the reporter with ProPublica, says this kind of disclosure is making it harder for the industry to protect its image.
Government agency collusion
Government agency collusion with different industries, to me, represented nothing short of corruption. I was reminded of the tobacco industry and how the Phillip Morris tobacco company organized its Boca Raton Action Plan in 1988, in an effort to “diffuse and re-orient” the voices and initiatives of those fighting tobacco in favor of public health. Also, how the World Health Organization (WHO) itself colluded with legal experts and doctors in the United States in favor of the tobacco industry and against public health. From this fiasco was coined the expression “tobacco science;” i.e. “Science” done on behalf of an interest defending its profits, like the science conducted by a cigarette company showing that cigarettes are safe.
And speaking of the WHO, I was also reminded of the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) “pandemic.” In the spring of 2010, the Council of Europe was investigating the role of the WHO in declaring the H1N1 pandemic. Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg, an epidemiologist who at one time was head of the Health Committee of the Council of Europe, expressed concerns that the contracts for the vaccine were mostly confidential arrangements between the WHO, individual member states and the companies producing the vaccine. In fact, numerous countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Great Britain, entered into contracts with the vaccine manufacturing companies prior to the WHO’s declaration of an H1N1 pandemic. The contracts obligated these countries to purchase swine flu vaccinations under one condition: that the WHO issue a pandemic flu alert.
In his farewell speech to the citizenry, U. S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower poignantly expressed his concern regarding the future of science and its partnership with government, and government with industry, when he said:
…the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research…The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
I kept wondering about the revolving doors, the collusion, industrial interests, and the science that was supposed to provide a foundation upon which to rest our confidence, our trust. How did we get here? The short answer, and quite possibly the simplest, might be the privatization of knowledge, or as some have called it, the “selling of science.” Or, maybe it’s the troubled matrimony of science and technology, where an applied and economic gain becomes the foundational rationale for present and future scientific endeavor. Such an environment raises serious questions as to the future of knowledge, the advancement of the sciences, and potential impacts on our economic, social, and public health.
Aristotle reminded us that “knowledge is virtue.” It has a value unto itself; a purpose that serves no particular master other than the rational development of inquiry and respective methods for the development of that knowledge. Here resided the principles of the classic universities, places where questions were explored, answered, and questioned again. This was the meaning of science – never settled – but forever moving toward a better, safer, healthier, and more advanced state of human affairs. But what happens to science when the scientist is tied to private industry, where the principle objective of private industry is defined by its stockholders interests, investments, and profits, where the same industry that manufactures the product for profit is also the industry responsible for generating the science determining the efficacy, effectiveness, and safety of its product?
In his book, Science in the Private Interest, Dr. Sheldon Krimsky writes,
The responsibility of the scientist begins with discovery and ends with commercial applications. Universities exist mainly to provide labor for industry and to help industry turn knowledge into technology; technology into productivity; and productivity into profits.
What Dr. Krimsky refers to as “public interest science as a model of knowledge for human welfare,” has been redefined, or more crudely speaking, undermined by the transformation of the relationship between scientists at universities, private industries with their scientists, and the “cozy relationships” that exist between the two. In the book To Profit or Not To Profit, authors Walter Powell and Jason Owens-Smith state,
The changes underway at universities are the result of multiple forces: a transformation in of the nature policymakers and key constituents. These trends are so potent that there is little chance for reversing them-nor necessarily a rationale for doing so.
These changes have been referred to as characteristic of the scientist as entrepreneur, or parts of what Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie explore in their book Academic Capitalism. In it, they write:
We would expect that faculty as professionals participating in academic capitalism would begin to move away from values such as altruism and public service, toward market values.
The transformation of science and scientists
The transformation of science and scientists that are lured into and seek financial support from private industry for any number of research-to-market projects has become an all too familiar scenario with potentially devastating consequences.
Most recently, the parents of one of the victims of the Egyptian Boeing airline, filed suit against Boeing and the Rosemont airline parts manufacturing industry. Reuters report states that:
Thursday’s complaint accuses Boeing of putting “profits over safety” and said the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration must also be held accountable for certifying the 737 MAX.
However, reports Reuters: “Legal experts say these cases face high hurdles since government officials and agencies are generally immune from civil lawsuits.”
Under the current science-to-market model, government oversight of any number of products, from airplanes, to drugs, to tobacco, and more, continues to demonstrate a complacency that favors market-driven profits over public safety. This reality should alarm anyone and all. What if, as some of the legal experts above claim, a U.S. citizen has no right to hold industry responsible for assurances of safety because those industries are tied to government agencies, or because those agencies derive profits or “benefits” from the “cozy relationships?” If you believe that the FAA and the FDA need to come clean regarding the “revolving door” and “cozy relationships” that experts have indicated exist between both agencies and private industry, why would we not consider the same for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)?
Arguably, a profoundly vivid parallel is seen in the policies and practices of mandatory vaccination and informed consent. Over the many years studying vaccination theory and practice, I discovered a disturbing similar pattern – the “revolving door” between the CDC and private pharmaceutical manufacturing companies, the conflicts of interest where different committees and their members are given waivers protecting conflicts of interest, payoffs to doctors for administering vaccines, fast-tracking of vaccines and safety studies with no use of double-blind placebo studies, and the very “cozy relationship” between members of Congress, “big pharma,” the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In 1986, Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA). For years families had been suing vaccine manufacturers for injuries their children suffered at the hands of vaccines. Threatening to discontinue vaccine production, the vaccine manufacturers asked for government assurances that their products would go forward unhindered. The 1986 law took all liability away from the manufacturers of vaccines, making it impossible to sue the industry. The same law stipulated that every two years the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would submit a report to Congress on the state of vaccine safety. It was during this time that the numbers and doses of vaccines began a dramatic increase.
In 2017 Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Del Bigtree of the Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN) filed a suit before the U.S. Federal Court for the Southern District of New York. On July 27, 2018, HHS admitted the following before the court:
The [Department]’s searches for records did not locate any records responsive to your request. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Immediate Office of the Secretary (IOS) conducted a thorough search of its document tracking systems. The department also conducted a comprehensive review of all relevant indexes of HHS secretarial correspondence records maintained at Federal record centers that remain in the custody of HHS. These searches did not locate records responsive to your request, or indications that records responsive to your request and in the custody of HHS are located at Federal record centers.
Today in the United States, political, medical, and mass media leadership, infused by the interests of vaccine manufacturers, are currently engaged in a massive campaign to silence dialogue, ban books and websites, avoid debates, and impose that vaccines become mandatory for all with no respect to informed consent, religious beliefs, medical conditions, or personal conscience. Writing on a recent measles outbreak in Rockland County, New York, Celeste McGovern remarks,
People, like those in Rockland County, don’t avoid vaccines because they are misled by “fake” news and Facebook – but because of the real stories of corporate greed and political cover-up and vaccine-injured children that are shared on those platforms. The data bears them out. There are millions of them.
The very thought that censorship would become an instrument of intimidation, humiliation, a threat, and a practice violating human rights, should make anyone shiver. But maybe more importantly, the unbridled and crass censorship we are witnessing today on the topic of mandatory vaccination, its effectiveness and safety, should leave us asking: How is it possible that censorship becomes a principal upon which public policy and social interaction are defined in a democracy? Will the violation of the right to informed consent become the new paradigm applied to air travel, medications, vaccination, food, and more?
Personally, and professionally, I see nothing edifying and positive coming from the censorship of those that question. Boeing has explaining to do, as does the FAA. Furthermore, Johnson & Johnson, Purdue, CVS and the FDA, owe the people an explanation. Likewise, the HHS, CDC, and pharma owe the people many explanations about the safety of vaccines.
This is no time for silence.