Bayer's Funding of Bee Death Researcher Draws Conflict-of-Interest Allegations

Last Updated Nov 2, 2010 11:43 AM EDT

The fact that the scientist who believes he has figured out why all the bees are dying -- the villains are a two-punch fungus and a virus combination -- also took money from Bayer (BAYRY), which makes the pesticides previously suspected in the mass die-off of bees, neatly illustrates why an appearance of a conflict of interest is, for all practical purposes, the same thing as an actual conflict of interest.

Until recently, many environmentalists suspected that Bayer's pesticides were responsible for weakening the bee population, which is crucial for the pollination of much of the vegetables and fruits we eat.

But a New York Times article on Oct. 6 declared that a team of researchers led by Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana in Missoula has "solved" the bee issue, pointing to a virus and a fungus that, separately, bees shrug off, unless the bee is infected with both at the same time. Then Fortune magazine pointed out some information that wasn't in the Times piece:

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.
Oops! Bromenshenk denies that Bayer influences his research:
"We had 18 authors on our PLoS ONE paper," Bromenshenk wrote to the Missoulian. "To imply that I somehow persuaded our co-authors from the U.S. Army, three other universities, and two other companies to report a link of a virus and a fungus to CCD, so as to â€"- as implied -â€" exonerate pesticides as a potential contributor to CCD, is preposterous."
There's a separate debate to be had about the way Big Pharma funding does create bias even in peer-reviewed research (and how researchers always believe that they personally aren't affected by it). And the bee mystery is not yet over.

But in Bromenshenk's case, the old Bayer payments illustrate how quickly your credibility can slip if you're taking money from someone at the same time as you're making decisions about issues in which your funder has a direct interest. Even if we assume that Bromenshenk's current research has nothing to do with Bayer, it's still easy to criticize his work because he's previously had a close relationship with Bayer.

Bromenshenk's anger at the allegations illustrates a problem that many managers get wrong: Just because you don't have an actual conflict of interest doesn't mean an appearance of a conflict is irrelevant. In business as in science, appearances matter. Certainly in terms of brand and reputation management, they're basically the same thing.

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Image by Flickr user aussiegal, CC.