FC: What exactly do product-defense companies do?
They combine science with public relations to help clients avoid regulation and litigation. I have yet to see a study published by a product-defense firm that conflicts with the needs of the study's sponsors. The intent is to cast doubt on real science. The industry has deep roots in the fight over tobacco.
Who are the major players?
Some of the big ones are Exponent, Gradient, ChemRisk, and the Weinberg Group. There are many small ones. Any scientist can hang out a shingle and hope to attract the interests of a polluter. There are a lot of academics who do this work.
Who hires them?
Manufacturers and trade associations. In some cases, they are paid through attorneys to avoid public disclosure, hiding behind attorney work-product privilege.
How do they use their studies?
The clients — or their PR firms — bring studies to Congress, regulators, judges, and the media and say, "Look, the studies you're using are wrong. Here are better ones that say our product is safe."
And that works?
Yes. Because Americans have great trust in science. We believe in scientists' integrity, that they are striving for the truth. So if a scientist says that the evidence against a chemical isn't very good, we tend to believe it. Or if there appears to be conflicting science, we think more research is needed. The product-defense industry plays on that trust. Once you produce an equal-yet-opposite study, decision makers tend to throw up their arms and say, "There's nothing we can do."
What role do the media play?
If a mercenary scientist claims that an independent scientist is wrong, the media will give both sides equal weight, often without pointing out that one side has been paid for by industry. The most obvious example of this is the handful of climate-change deniers paid for by the fossil-fuel industry who have been quoted in innumerable articles.
Are there clear examples of products that have been kept on shelves that should have been removed?
Vioxx is a recent one. There were early papers written by independent cardiologists who pointed out that people taking Vioxx had double the heart-attack rate of those taking other drugs. But then scientists paid by Merck published study after study saying that the effects weren't real. That was clearly wrong, but it helped keep Vioxx on the market for three years. FDA scientists estimate that the drug caused a total of 88,000 to 139,000 heart attacks.
Are there examples of product-defense firms rescuing legitimate products?
Those examples are rare, if they exist at all.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.