SKAPPOLOGY

The Genetic Literacy Project (GLP) asks:

“Who is David and who is Goliath in the lobbying battle over agricultural biotechnology? Activists? Agro-business? In a commitment to transparency, the GLP has mined 5 years of data to help the public understand the funding network that shapes the biotechnology debate.”

The amount of money flowing into the campaign against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is astonishing, but it does not stop the hypocritical complaints against industry’s sponsorship of studies to help show the safety of GMOs. In a recent on-line article, the GLP has published charts to map contributions from not-for-profit non-governmental organizations to anti-biotechnology advocacy groups. Close to a billion dollars ($850M) flowed into the coffers of these organizations from 2012 to 2016. The GLP’s work on tracking this funding is commendable for bringing balance to the debate about the effect of corporate money on health and environmental issues. Corporate includes the lawsuit industry and the advocacy industries.

Well actually, it would be a wonderful world if the GLP’s tracking were unnecessary. In one such alternative universe, people would ask to examine the evidence for and against claims, and they would have a healthy respect for uncertainty.

Studies funded by parties are routinely relied upon in litigation, and they are often pivotal in how courts decide significant claims of environmental or occupational harm.[1] Unfortunately, the sponsorship of studies by plaintiffs’ counsel, third-party litigation funding entities, and advocacy groups is often obscured or hidden.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I recently happened upon an article of interest in an obscure journal, by a well-known author.[2]  The author, John C. Bailar, formerly an Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, was  professor emeritus in the University of Chicago’s Department of Public Health Sciences. He died in September 2016. Bailar was a graduate of the Yale University medical school, and also held a doctorate in statistics.

There is nothing ground breaking in Bailar’s article, but it is a nice summary of the ways that errors can creep into the scientific literature, short of actual fabrication or falsification of data.[3] It is also worth reading because it is an article that comes from one of the several Coronado Conferences, sponsored by an advocacy organization that has fraudulently concealed its funding, The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, aka SKAPP.

To be sure, authors of SKAPP-funded articles have invariably cited their funding from SKAPP, and Bailar was no exception. Bailar made the following acknowledgements:

“Support for this paper was provided by The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. It is revised from a paper presented at SKAPP’s March 2006 Coronado Conference “Truth and Advocacy: The Quality and Nature of Litigation and Regulatory Science.” The papers from that conference will be published elsewhere.”[4]

The acknowledgement of support was rather anemic by SKAPP standards.  Most SKAPP-funded articles recited something closer to the following provided by David Michaels, who headed up SKAPP and worked as an expert witness for the litigation industry, until becoming the Administrator of the Occupational Health & Safety Administration, in President Obama’s administration:[5]

“DM [David Michaels] and CM [Celeste Monforton] are employed by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services as part of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP). Their salaries, in part, are funded by the Common Benefit Litigation Expense Trust, a fund established pursuant to a court order in the Silicone Gel Breast Implant Products Liability litigation. SKAPP’s funding is unrestricted; its funders are not given advance notice or the opportunity to review or approve any documents produced by the project. PL [Peter Lurie] is with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.”

Michaels’ statement was perhaps a little more forthcoming, but few scientists or lay persons would know that his salary, and support, came from plaintiffs’ lawyers as part of an active litigation effort. Although Michaels claimed that the funding was unrestricted, like Big Tobacco funding, the sponsor, plaintiffs’ counsel, created a substantial selection effect in choosing beneficiaries who would deliver its pre-approved message. The Common Benefit Trust may sound like an eleemosynary, public-spirited, organization, with the imprimatur of the federal court system.  It was not.

Was Bailar influenced by his source of funding?  His topic would have permitted him many examples from the annals of science or litigation, but interestingly one of the few examples Bailar chose to give details about was a scientific dispute between the semiconductor industry and Richard Clapp, who was acting as an expert witness in litigation against that industry.  Although Clapp used a study design known to be inaccurate and biased, Bailar touted Clapp’s research over that sponsored by members of the industry.  Richard Clapp, in addition to have been an expert witness for the litigation industry on many occasions, also happened to have been a member of the SKAPP’s advisory committee. Hmmm.

Whence comes SKAPP funding?  SKAPP trades on most readers’ lack of familiarity with how “common benefit funds” are established.  They sound like some sort of disembodied charitable trust, such as the Pew. In fact, the silicone common benefit trust was nothing more than a funding device for mass federal litigation involving silicone breast implants. Ironically, the funding came from a litigation in which one leading judge described plaintiffs’ expert witnesses as “charlatans,” and the litigation claims as largely based upon fraud.[6] Cynics might believe that Bailar’s choice of Clapp versus the semiconductor industry, regardless of the merits, was driven by a desire to please SKAPP & Clapp.

The common benefit fund for the silicone-gel breast implant litigation was created by Order 13, “Establishing Plaintiffs’ Litigation Expense Fund to Compensate and Reimburse Attorneys for Services Performed and Expenses Incurred for Common Benefit.” The late Judge Sam Pointer, appointed to preside over MDL 926, In re Silicone Gel Breast Implants Products Liability Litigation, Master File No. CV 92-P-10000-S, entered the order on July 23, 1993.  Some of the pertinent terms of Order 13 illustrate how it was supposed to operate:

This order is entered in order to provide for the fair and equitable sharing among plaintiffs of the cost of special services performed and expenses incurred by attorneys acting for the common benefit of all plaintiffs.

  1. Plaintiffs’ Litigation Expense Fund to be Established. Plaintiffs’ National Liaison Counsel … are directed to establish an interest-bearing account to receive and disburse funds as provided in this order.

***

  1. Assessment.

(a)    All plaintiffs and their attorneys who, after this date, either agree — for a monetary consideration — to settle, compromise, dismiss, or reduce the amount of a claim or, with or without a trial, recover a judgment for monetary damages or other monetary relief, including both compensatory and punitive damages, with respect to a breast implant claim are hereby assessed:

(1)    5% of the “gross monetary recovery,” if the agreement is made or the judgment is entered after this date and before November 1, 1993, or

(2)    6% of the “gross monetary recovery,” if the agreement is made or the judgment is entered after October 31, 1993.

Defendants are directed to withhold this assessment from amounts paid to plaintiffs and their counsel, and to pay the assessment into the fund as a credit against the settlement or judgment.  ***

  1. Disbursements.

(a)    Payments may be made from the fund to attorneys who provide services or incur expenses for the joint and common benefit of plaintiffs in addition to their own client or clients.  Attorneys eligible are not limited to Plaintiffs’ National Liaison Counsel and members of Plaintiffs’ National Steering Committee, but include, for example, other attorneys called upon by them to assist in performing their responsibilities, State Liaison Counsel, and other attorneys performing similar responsibilities in state court actions in which the presiding state-court judge has imposed similar obligations upon plaintiffs to contribute to the fund.

(b)    Payments will be allowed only to compensate for special services performed, and to reimburse for special expenses incurred, for the joint and common benefit of all plaintiffs.

***

(c)    No amounts will be disbursed without review and approval by a committee of federal and state judicial officers to be designated by the court.  The committee may, however, utilize the services of a special master to assist in this review, and may authorize one or more of its members to act for the committee in approving particular types of applications for disbursement.

(d)    If the fund exceeds the amount needed to make payments as provided in this order, the court will order an refund to those who have contributed to the fund.  Any such refund will be made in proportion to the amount of the contributions.”

For a while, a defense lawyer, representing the defendants in the silicone MDL, participated in discussions concerning MDL 926 Order 13 funds, until the plaintiffs’ lawyers decided that his services were not needed, and excluded him from discussions of the use of the monies. The reality is that the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the silicone litigation were able to bamboozle the slim oversight committee into approving a propaganda campaign against Daubert gatekeeping, and that recipients of the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ largesse were able to misrepresent their funding as though it were from a federal court.

There are further ironies connected with the silicone common benefit trust.  First, the silicone litigation was effectively over when the court-appointed expert witnesses’ reports that announced that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses lacked sound scientific evidence to support conclusions of causation.  SKAPP’s website reports that its activities started around 2002, by which time both the court-appointed witnesses, as well as the British Ministry of Health, and the Institute of Medicine’s select committee had reported that there was no basis for the plaintiffs’ causal claims in litigation.[7] The second irony is that SKAPP, through its sponsorship of various research and writing projects, had made the recipients of SKAPP money, by the terms of Order 13, agents of the silicone plaintiffs’ lawyers and their clients. Recipients of SKAPP funding who did not disclose that their support or salaries come from the coffers of plaintiffs’ counsel were engaged in misleading their readers and the scientific and legal communities.

I have written often in the past about SKAPP as an agent of plaintiffs’ counsel in mass tort litigation.[8] The concern is not new, but it has continuing significance because of the asymmetrical standard advanced by the lawsuit industry and its scientific advisors who seek to disqualify manufacturing industry and its scientific advisors from participating in scientific debate and argument about various health claims.[9]


[1]  See, e.g., Leaf River Forest Prods. v. Ferguson, 662 So. 2d 648, 657 (Miss. 1995) (litigation involving defense expert witness’s reliance upon dioxin studies funded by defendant paper mills); Maurer v. Heyer-Schulte Corp., No. Civ. A. 92-3485, 2002 WL 31819160 at *3 (E.D. La. Dec. 13, 2002) (granting defendant’s summary judgment against plaintiff’s claim that breast implants caused her harm; citing defendants’ sponsored epidemiologic studies showing no causal link, including epidemiologic study conducted in Sweden); Nat’l Res. Def. Council v. Evans, 232 F. Supp. 2d 1003, 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2002) (“commend[ing] defendants’ sponsorship of independent scientific research…”); FTC v. Pantron I, Corp., 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21858 (C.D. Cal. Sept 6, 1991) (finding study funded by defendants met “basic and fundamental requirements for scientific validity and reliability”).

[2]  John C. Bailar, “How to distort the scientific record without actually lying: truth, and the arts of science,” 11 European J. Oncol. 217 (2006).

[3]  Id. at 218.

[4]  Id. at 223.

[5]  David Michaels, Celeste Monforton & Peter Lurie, “Selected science: an industry campaign to undermine an OSHA hexavalent chromium standard,” 65 Envt’l Health 5 (2006).

[6]     Hon. Jack B. Weinstein, “Preliminary Reflections on Administration of Complex Litigation” 2009 Cardozo L. Rev. de novo 1, 14 (2009).

[7]   Independent Review Group, Silicone Breast Implants: The Report of the Independent Review Group 8, 22-23 (July 1998) (concluding that there was no demonstrable risk of connective tissue disease from silicone breast implants); Stuart Bondurant, Virginia Ernster, and Roger Herdman, eds., Safety of Silicone Breast Implants (1999) (rejecting plaintiffs’ theories and litigation claims of systemic disease).

[8]   “SKAPP A LOT” (April 30, 2010); “Manufacturing Certainty” (Oct. 25, 2011); “David Michaels’ Public Relations Problem” (Dec. 2, 2011); “Conflicted Public Interest Groups” (Nov. 3, 2013). See also Walter Olson, Schools for Misrule: Legal Academia and an Overlawyered America 121-22 (2011); David E. Bernstein & Eric G. Lasker, “Defending Daubert: It’s Time to Amend Federal Rule of Evidence 702,” 57 William & Mary L. Rev. 1, 39 & n.211 (2015); Ted Frank, “Daubert Debate,” Overlawyered (July 5, 2003); Peter Nordberg, “Bernstein on SKAPP (part 1),” Daubert on the Web (Jul)y 02, 2003).

[9]   Consider the media hysteria over former President Obama’s nomination of Dr. Robert Califf, to serve as Chair of the Food and Drug Administration.[9] The criticism was based upon his having served as the founding director of the Duke Clinical Research Institute, which received funding directly from pharmaceutical companies. The Senate confirmed Califf (89 to 4), but the controversy highlights the hypocrisy in play. Brady Dennis, “Senate confirms Robert Califf as new FDA commissioner,” Wash. Post (Feb. 24, 2016).

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