On Thursday 17th March, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (the IARC), appointed Dr. Elisabete Weiderpass as its new Director. She will replace Christopher Wild, the outgoing director. This subject is of particular interest to a site like European Scientist, as it allows us to observe the complex interactions between science, politics, the media and public opinion.
However, as we recalled in a recent editorial, the IARC’s methods and interaction with other key players perfectly exemplifies the shift from “scientific controversy” to “public polemic”, so characteristic of the increasingly prevalent scientific quarrels. The IARC is a “hybrid organisation” with strong links to the media and politics and not solely the scientific community. Its opinions have a direct influence on policies, the media and consumers, even when they are still scientifically controversial.
This is all the more striking because the IARC does not generate scientific studies in the same way as, for example, a laboratory; in fact, they only publish monographs, i.e. compilations and selections of scientific studies, by means of which it tries to classify “hazards” into five categories. The fact is that the IARC came to public notice for announcing that meat or coffee were “probably carcinogenic”, triggering media wrath and even whipping up public opinion.
The more recent dispute over glyphosate is an even better illustration of this phenomenon. The IARC has classified this molecule as “probably carcinogenic”, going against the advice of a majority of health agencies, and very selectively choosing certain studies that it has decided to highlight, while downplaying the importance, or even ignoring certain other studies (scientific critics have referred to ‘cherry picking’). A scientific controversy followed, forcing the same agencies to review their positions. The result being that they redeemed glyphosate’s reputation again, thus putting the organisation at odds with the rest of the establishment, and this time it was not even supported by its parent entity, the WHO.
But in the meantime, there has been a shift from a simple scientific controversy (limited to a debate amongst experts) to a public polemic extending to the community of NGOs, the media, politicians and ultimately affecting public opinion as a whole. In our opinion, this shift occurs when it is no longer the facts and their interpretations that give rise to disagreement, but the individuals who are at the centre of the debate. In other words, when we move on to ad hominem attacks.
Seeing that the scientific controversy was getting bogged down, NIH director Francis Collins, and U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, required Chris Wild to justify himself. We know the rest. The IARC decided to hold elections to replace him, raising hopes that the debate would calm down and there would be a return to the kind of institution which confined the scientific debate to a panel discussion amongst experts. The person to lead the IARC out of the realms of the polemic and return it to scientific controversy had to be neutral and without links to the organisation’s past. We would think that is the way forward for debate on a new fresh basis, unhampered by suspicion.
So, what now? What can we expect from the election of Elisabete Weiderpass? First of all, a glance at Dr Weiderpass’s impressive CV: this native Brazilian, Swedish and Finnish naturalised researcher is a doctor of medicine and PhD, an expert in cancer epidemiology and cancer prevention. As the IARC press release states “Elisabete Weiderpass, […] currently serves as leader of the Department of Research at the Cancer Registry of Norway, and of the Genetic Epidemiology Group at the Folkhälsan Research Center in Finland. She is a Professor of Medical Epidemiology at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, and a Professor of Cancer Epidemiology at the Arctic University of Norway. She holds Adjunct Professorship positions in Cancer Epidemiology in Brazil, China, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is a Visiting Professor in Kuwait.”
Quite a change then, and a break with the status quo which had been attracting a great deal of criticism to the IARC. Certainly the IARC’s critics will consider Dr Weiderpass’s election preferable to that of Mr Christofer Portier who – despite a history of polemics – was among the 33 candidates in the election. But they may well be surprised that this blood is not as new as it may appear. Parts of Dr Weiderpass’s CV show that she was connected with the institution as long as 20 years ago.
In fact, she did a post doc at the IARC in 1994 and since then seems to have been a strong supporter of the institute. She is also one of the authors of a 2015 study that rejected widespread criticism of the IARC. Her husband, Harri Vainio – a member of the Ramazzini Institute whose studies on glyphosate have been heavily criticized by the scientific community – is also linked to the IARC, where he was in charge of monographs from 1983 to 1987 and from 1990 to 1993. Finally, she was deeply involved in the glyphosate dispute as she co-authored a paper with Christopher Portier in which the authors sought to discredit EFSA’s work. We bet that scientists who have criticized the IARC’s bias will take a dim view of these details….
There is no doubt that Dr Weiderpass has all the required skills and knows the ropes at the IARC well enough to run the institution and it is no bad thing that it be taken in hand. But will she be able to silence the suspicions of the detractors? Are they not likely to find it strange, for example, that Iran, a country with which she has very close links and where she has conducted studies, decided to join the IARC the week of her election? The reader is once again reminded that an organisation like the IARC plays a political as well as a scientific role, hence the importance of choosing its representatives carefully. The new Director will take up her post at the end of the year. We can’t judge her ability to silence controversy till then.
This post is also available in: FR (FR)