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

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to the November issue of the medical journal Clinics in Occupational and Environmental Medicine have unanimously withdrawn their submissions in a boycott protesting what they believe may be censorship of a study suggesting a link between employment at IBM semiconductor plants and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.

"But here the data bank was so large that any increase was significant. Here was something you could really get your teeth into. When you correlated that to the exposure data, we would have a real epidemiology to publish."

Where medical researchers saw a data trove, IBM apparently saw an enormous potential liability. The company's lawyers are reported to have called Clapp's study litigation-driven junk science, and last October a California Superior Court judge ruled that the study wasn't admissible in the lawsuit that had spawned it because the study didn't specifically link increased cancer risk to chemical exposure.

LaDou says the study could not link increased mortality to chemicals because IBM wouldn't reveal the job assignments of employees who'd died of cancer. "He [Clapp] had a limited study, because he had limited information," LaDou says. "He did not have work-assignment data. He did not have the years of exposure to chemicals. His findings were still cause for alarm."

Last month several of the San Jose plaintiffs received settlements under secret terms. But more than 100 similar cases are still pending against IBM around the country.

I got an automated out-of-office message when I e-mailed a series of questions about the controversy to Elsevier spokesperson Marike Westra. But in June, Westra told The Scientist magazine that the Clapp paper was rejected because it was an original work, and Clinics only publishes review papers discussing research conducted by other scientists.

Hogwash, LaDou says.

"In their instructions to me as a guest editor, I was not told that," LaDou told me. "When I presented the article as part of our original list of papers, no one said that. And looking back over other issues of this same journal, I see other original research articles in them. Which leads me to the conclusion that this was a convenient excuse not to publish the paper because they didn't want to run afoul of a major corporation."

As for supposed pressure from IBM, Westra told The Scientistthat the electronics giant did not ask Elsevier to block publication.

LaDou, however, suggests that the Clinics flap is only the latest in a series of censorship disputes involving Elsevier. He sent me the October-December 2003 issue of the International Journal of Occupational Environmental Health containing an exchange of letters in which 40 scientists accused another Elsevier journal, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, of "corporate conflicts of interest, lack of transparency, and absence of editorial independence." The scientists also contended that the journal "serves as a convenient venue for the publication of industry research."

The journal had published papers paid for by the tobacco industry without revealing this sponsorship and had published numerous other papers by paid consultants for various industries without revealing those links, the letters contended.

The editor of Occupational Environmental Health wrote that the letters were published in order to "alert readers to the ways in which supposedly credible peer-reviewed journals may be co-opted by corporations to give credibility to particular scientific points of view."

Elsevier responded by disputing some of the scientists' points, yet announcing it would institute a policy that would request that authors "disclose any possible conflicts of interest."

Once it became clear that Clinics in Occupational and Environmental Medicinewould not publish Clapp's study, 13 other scientists withheld their studies from the special issue on the electronics industry.

Robert Harrison, a UCSF professor who had intended to contribute a paper studying blood tests performed on people exposed to chemicals of the types used at companies such as IBM, says information in the censored Clinics paper is crucial to diagnosing and treating cancer patients who might have been electronics industry workers.

"We agreed to withhold our papers because disseminating information to our colleagues, and how you diagnose and treat and prevent these illnesses, is really important. We're sending the message that that principle needs to be maintained," Harrison says. "I think it's important that a group of scientists and physicians are standing together to make a statement."

Clapp, the scientist whose paper was rejected by the Clinics publisher, says the importance of his study, and the boycott, transcends academia. "This study of health in the semiconductor industry is a big issue in the Bay Area. I think the results of the study should be public. It's a way people can protect themselves," Clapp says. "There are chemicals [that] people are working with that can cause cancer, and that's information that's important. That's what the bottom line is: It's people being able to protect themselves and their families."

The story of the Clinics in Occupational and Environmental Medicine13 appears to have a happy ending. Clapp says he's determined that his information be made available to the public, despite IBM's efforts in a New York lawsuit to keep the information out of court in the San Jose case.

Clapp says he hired a lawyer specializing in sealed court documents, who determined that her client has the right to publish because IBM did not seal a deposition in the San Jose case referring extensively to the study.

"The issue for me is whether the information can be published anywhere," Clapp says. "It's now a court record. And it's a public document."

Clapp says he's been contacted by a half-dozen scientific journals other than Clinics that wish to publish his study. When he called for the boycott, LaDou said he would relent once it became clear Clapp's research would be published -- even if it were not in Clinics.

Adds LaDou: "If Elsevier wanted to do it, we would go ahead and get our articles out" with Clinics.

In the United States, companies such as IBM, which utilizes thousands of solvents and other chemicals believed to be carcinogenic in the manufacture of semiconductors and other tech hardware, routinely seek to conceal scientific data with the potential to show that the companies may be exposing employees to carcinogens.

As these high-tech firms push manufacturing processes to developing (and thus less regulated) countries, the fight to make the effects of these potentially deadly chemicals public knowledge takes on global significance, and begins to evoke an aura of déjà vu. A group of UC agitators fighting for the right to prevent U.S. interests from endangering the lives of thousands of people in regions such as Southeast Asia?

Not a new Vietnam, precisely, but certainly a cause worthy of a new era of campus radicalism. This time around, I'll be sure to pay attention.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.