One morning in early summer 2018, we opened our web browsers and checked the website for the then-upcoming 2018 International Society for Exposure Sciences and International Society for Environmental Epidemiology (ISES-ISEE) joint conference in Ottawa and saw a banner of ExxonMobil passing across our screen. As immediate past president (M.K.) and active member (T.T.) of the ISEE and part of the organizing committee of the conference (M.K. and T.T.), we found it outrageous that the signature event of our professional community was being financially supported by one of the worst oil extraction industries concerning respect for the environment, scientific integrity, and human health. We later learned that ISEE was not involved in accepting these funds. Indeed, our society has a longstanding commitment not to accept funds from fossil fuel extraction companies, including for conference sponsorship. ISEE’s commitment to this policy was re-affirmed in 2018 in the amended policies and procedures of the Society concerning sponsorship. Nonetheless other societies, such as ISES, are more willing to accept these funds. As such, we wish to share our views on why organizations representing environmental health researchers and their scientific meetings should not accept support from the fossil fuel extraction companies. We further argue that ISEE should become more vocal on this issue and also actively promote other measures such as divestment from these industries.
When discussing this issue with colleagues, we found several saying “what is the problem? We take this money, and we declare it,” (bypassing the fact that declaring does not solve the problem of conflicts of interests, it just declares them), or “These are small amounts and cannot affect the quality or impartiality of our conferences and our research” or “This is okay if we use the funds for a good cause, such as providing travel awards for scientists from low income countries.” All these arguments sound reasonable, but they are not. The same arguments had been brought forward many years earlier for the tobacco industry and, at that time as well, they seemed reasonable, but they were not. Funding of research from the tobacco industry is practically banned and most, if not all, major biomedical journals will not publish articles reporting research funded by this industry. This drastic position against the tobacco industry helped to bring about major public health gains.
The problem is not that funds come from industry. Building strong connections between research and industry is positive and should be promoted. Industry is a dynamic part of our society promoting innovation and technological solutions, and effective control of pollution and climate change will also come from our interaction with industry. The main issue is which industry provides the funds and what their interests are in the work of our society.
We should ban sponsorship by fossil fuel industries (oil, coal, natural gas) and start treating these industries like the tobacco industry. We should request that our scientific societies, universities, and research centers do the same. There are three main reasons for this:
- (1) The most important is that these industries are major determinants of human disease and environmental deterioration. It is hypocritical for researchers and policymakers promoting environmental health to receive funds from industries whose main products are the causes of climate change and environmental degradation. Fossil fuels have certainly played a crucial role in the development of modern societies, but for several decades now are also the main factors contributing to global climate change. These changes are contributing substantial excess mortality and morbidity due to more intense or frequent episodes of heat, wildfires, flooding, drought and other extreme weather events; air pollution; sea-level rise; water contamination; food shortages; and shifting infectious diseases.1,2The need for a global response is urgent.3,4
- (2) The second reason is that the fossil fuel industries knew. Like the tobacco industry, Big Oil knew that their products could make the planet uninhabitable and intentionally buried the evidence they had. The detrimental effects of oil and coal extraction on the world’s ecosystems, humans, and other species are well known and have been for decades. One of the earliest official reports was prepared in the United States for President Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s.5 There are numerous files showing that Exxon, Shell, and other fossil fuel companies had predicted already in the 1970s and 1980s that continuing use of fossil fuels would result in increasing temperatures and massive detrimental environmental effects.6 Still after their own research showed how continued emissions would negatively affect earth’s climate systems they suppressed their studies and, particularly after the Rio 1992 conference, began a cynical, systematic campaign to undermine this evidence by attacking the science and scientists, sowing doubt about the findings and consciously misleading the public on adverse effects of their products.7 They lobbied in unlawful ways to promote their products8 and opened new markets in low and middle income countries when confronted with criticism in high income countries. Despite the global commitment to limit global warming under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the fossil fuel industry and affiliated institutions continue to finance new coal, oil, and gas projects that will lock us into decades of future greenhouse gas emissions.
- (3) The third reason is that, like our stand against the tobacco industry that resulted to substantial public health advances, we have to take a categorical, effective, and clear-cut position against the products and actions of harmful industries. The science is more than adequate to warrant action. Unless we take this position, we will not be able to effectively convince the lay public and our politicians of the urgency with which we must mobilize. The stakes are too high with global pollution and climate change. There is no longer time for complacency. We need a transformative change in policy if we are to attain the Sustainable Development Goals by 2050.9 In a situation of crisis, and readily available solutions, we have to take an unequivocal stand against those perpetuating this environmental and health crisis.
There are two additional issues that are related and are complex. First, where do we draw the line? There are many industries affecting the environment and human health through their production process and end products. Many of them are part of huge multinationals that may promote health through some products, medical technologies, screening devices, and at the same time attack public health through, say, the actions of their pesticide branch. Taking radical positions and closing our connections to industry in general would be counterproductive for our scientific societies and we should take a measured and, certainly, well-thought-out positions.
The second, related, issue is with regards to conflicts of interest. It is a (profitable) illusion to think that taking funds from a third party may not affect independence of research and policy. Although solutions may be difficult in specific sectors due to the extended and uncontrolled academia-industry network, there has been an extensive discussion on conflicts of interest and protocols exist on how academics and their institutes should manage these concerns.
ISEE should become more vocal on the need to ban sponsorship by the fossil fuel industry and promote other measures such as divestment from these industries while promoting research, investment, and use of alternative energies. Major universities (e.g., Stanford) and over a thousand institutional investors including the American Medical Association and the government of Ireland have already taken this position and are divesting from fossil fuel companies (over US$6 trillion to date), as complex as this may be.10 Several society organizations, e.g., 350.org, are actively and successfully working in this direction. ISEE has to be exemplary on this and cannot afford another scientific conference or event with this type of sponsorship. And we must convince colleagues in other societies that they should do the same. ISEE is the largest scientific association on environmental health, and our members have done outstanding work in promoting health in relation to environmental and occupational exposures. We have to take widespread initiatives to promote a world less dependent on fossil fuels that develops in a sustainable way. Defending our values will require action by our own Society and will require a confrontation with large financial interests defended by Big Oil, analogous to those from the fight against Big Tobacco.
Dr. Manolis Kogevinas, MD, PhD is a senior researcher at ISGlobal. His research focuses on the evaluation of environmental, occupational and genetic factors in relation to cancer and other diseases in adults and children. He was President of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology in 2016–2017 and a member of the Policy Committee of ISEE.
Dr. Tim Takaro is a physician-scientist trained in occupational and environmental medicine. His research program at Simon Fraser University focuses on the environmental determinants of childhood asthma and the health impacts of climate change and resource development on community health.
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