Scientific culture

Trust me; I'm a scientist

The scientific debate over radiation biology comes at a time of crisis for scientific orthodoxies (just think of the disastrous about-turn the UK Government had to perform over BSE)
Some countries have set up agencies to oppose scientific fraud; regulatory bodies in many fields are seen as protecting the industries they govern, rather than the public or the environment.
Scepticism is so acute that cinema audiences have been known to laugh aloud when Indiana Jones says Trust me; I'm a scientist

The peer review system is suspect. Some published studies ought not to have passed reviewers' scrutiny(1); some have been rejected on demonstrably false grounds (2) (3).

This is a quis custodiet? problem - the reviewers are in many cases inside the establishment. At the same time they publish voluminously without review. For example, Dr. McKinley, head of the Non-Ionising Radiation Department of the NRPB was cross-examined as expert witness for the defence in a recent court case. Asked about his qualifications and publications, Dr. McKinley said that he had obtained his Doctorate at the Paisley College of Technology after he had started working for the NRPB, and that his entire working career had been with NRPB. He said he had written over a hundred papers but that none of them had been subject to peer review - his work had mainly been published by the NRPB itself. The one work cited by the defence as an external publication was an EU experts group review of previous research; Dr. McKinley himself chaired the group. His expertise is solely in dosimetry and he said he was unqualified to answer any questions about biology or the biological effects of non-ionising radiation.

ICRP's recommendations are not peer reviewed - their view is that they are the pre-eminent body of experts, so that they can have no peers. Similarly, the studies which underlie the Council Directive 96/29 (Basic Safety Standards on radiation protection) are in-house publications by the nuclear industry, its regulators, and the secretive Article 31 Group of experts which advises the European Commission on radiation protection matters. Public scrutiny and informed political debate are not permitted.

NRPB routinely publishes with only internal review or with none. The story of their advice to COMARE on plutonium lymph node doses, for example, is a scandal - a fatal weakness in COMARE's 4th report (on the Seascale leukaemia cluster) . Consider this extract from a Radioactive Times report (4):

The cause of leukaemia?

... the real doses [to lymph nodes], even using NRPB’s averaging, are the highest they found in any organ by any exposure route. We contacted COMARE to ask how the calculation was done. Bryn Bridges emailed Chris Busby: The calculations are in R-276, he wrote.
‘But no’, replied Busby, ‘ they are not!’
Bridges apologised: I was misinformed. They are in a report by NRPB COMARE 95/40 by J. R. Simmonds.
Can we have a copy?
No, it is a private report of NRPB!

So the origin of the Seascale child leukemias is now down to an explanation based on an unpublished report which is not available for review? We contacted Frances Fry at NRPB.
No, the report is not available, it has not been internally reviewed.
Good,
we said, just put that in writing please and sign it.

The report appeared the next day with a caveat by Ms Fry: It should not be cited because it hasn't been checked.
But why then was it used by COMARE to support their conclusion that radiation from Sellafield had not caused the leukemia excess? Why did we see Bridges on TV telling us in 1996 how it was an unknown virus brought in by workers and spread by open sewage facilities?

The report, in any case tells us nothing. It is one page containing the message that the doses were calculated for a 1 year old and giving the result. No explanation of parameters, no equations or input values. Nothing.

We believe that one cause of the Sellafield leukemias is now probably found. It is the high local dose to the TBNs. Because NRPB calculate their doses by dividing the energy from the plutonium decays into the whole of the lymphatic system. In R-276, they model this as liver, lung, kidney, spleen, pancreas, uterus and intestines. No physiologist would recognise this large mass of organs as a description of the lymphatic system.

[Radioactive Times extract ends]

A new system Science advice to Government

We argue that the present system of decision making in contentious scientific areas is overly reliant on established figures. A new system allowing access to unorthodox views should be adopted. This is described in some detail in a Green Audit report reviewed on this site. See I don't Know Much About Science ...
Since this page was written in 2001 the problem of one-sided advice has been recognised by, among others, UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher. He set up the Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters as an oppositional committee.
More recently the European Health Commissioner asked the Policy Interpretation Network on Child Health and the Environment to consider the problem. PINCHE has
(5) recommended that

In this regard, PINCHE has recognized and cited evidence in its WP6 report that the acquisition of and handling of scientific environmental health data may be culturally biased by the needs of the institution handling the data and making representations about its meaning. This is the key area of argument in the case of science and policy. For example, the UK ‘mad cow disease’ science-policy interface was later shown to be both wrong (children died) and biased by the exclusion of independent scientists from the policy advice committee. The example studied in PINCHE was the transposition of the science of trichloroethylene carcinogenicity into policy, and in this case independent examination of the process showed clearly the alarming uncertainty introduced by the various scientific players and organizations involved, who were from industry, academia and governments and were pulling in different directions through different interpretations of the same data.
PINCHE, for this reason, developed a recommendation that scientific advice committees on specific exposure questions be set up at the beginning as discursive or oppositional committees, with institutional funding to include independent scientists to examine issues of environmental health. Reports of these committees’ discussions would include all sides of issues where there is some argument as to the health consequences of policies involving these substances or processes. It would then be for the policy makers to decide on the safety of the process that was being suggested or the exposure that was being investigated. Thus, the many stages in the science policy sequence would be available for examination if later anything went wrong. This is PINCHE’s main recommendation in this area.

References

1 e.g. Darby 1993, Parkin 1996

2 e.g. Stewart 2000 - see this reference with text for reviewers' opinions:

3 and see the Second Event theory - referees' opinions are reproduced in Busby's Wings of Death, which has as its first chapter a critique of scientific "nationalism" - the defensive, exclusive culture which tends to exclude paradigm breaking ideas.

4 The full Radioactive Times story is on this site.

5 Van den Hazel P, et al: Policy and science in children’s health and environment: Recommendations from the PINCHE project Acta Pædiatrica, 2006; 95 Suppl 453: 114_119


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