By Stacy Malkan
In a November exposé for The Intercept, “How Self-Appointed Guardians of ‘Sound Science’ Tip the Scales Toward Industry,” Liza Gross details the tobacco ties and industry connections of Sense About Science, a group trying to shape science media coverage that opened a US office in 2014.
“Sense About Science claims to champion transparency” but “does not always disclose when its sources on controversial matters are scientists with ties to the industries under examination,” Gross wrote.
She advised reporters to be wary: “When journalists rightly ask who sponsors research into the risks of, say, asbestos, or synthetic chemicals, they’d be well advised to question the evidence Sense About Science presents in these debates as well.”
This fact sheet provides background about Sense About Science USA, its director Trevor Butterworth, and the ties both have to industry propaganda efforts.
Defending chemicals and junk food
Sense About Science was founded in 2002 in the United Kingdom by Dick Taverne, an English politician and businessman, as a lobby effort to “put science at the heart of public discussion,” according to its website.
The US arm, Sense About Science USA, launched in Brooklyn in 2014 under the directorship of Trevor Butterworth, a writer with a long history of spinning science to the benefit of the chemical and food industries.
Over his career, Butterworth has published many arguments for deregulation and attempts to refute concerns about chemicals and food products – for example he has defended phthalates, BPA, vinyl plastic, fracking, lead in lipstick, formaldehyde in baby soaps, corn syrup, sugary sodas and artificial sweeteners.
Butterworth’s articles share a common theme: attacking and trying to discredit science, scientists, journalists and consumer groups that raise concerns about products important to the chemical and junk food industries.
From 2003 to 2014, Butterworth was editor at Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a nonprofit group at George Mason University that says it educates journalists about statistical studies. Prior to that and as early as 1997, Butterworth was a fellow with STATS sister organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA).
Both groups, which filed joint tax returns for many years, have been vague about their funding. CMPA is known to have accepted money from the tobacco industry in the 1990s. The bulk of funding for STATS appears to have come from a small group of anti-regulatory foundations that have also funded climate change denier groups.
Butterworth is also a visiting fellow at Cornell University Alliance for Science, a group funded by the Gates Foundation to promote GMOs, where he runs a workshop to teach his brand of media relations to students and young scientists. He is also a contributor to Forbes and Newsweek and writes book reviews for the Wall Street Journal.
Many journalists have quoted Butterworth as an independent source, identifying him as a journalist or representative of the media outlets he writes for without mentioning STATS or questioning his funding sources, or have described STATS as a “nonpartisan” group.
Chemical Industry Public Relations Writer
Butterworth played a key role in the chemical industry’s propaganda campaign to discredit health concerns about the chemical bisphenol A (BPA).
In a 2009 investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about chemical industry lobbying, journalists Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust described Butterworth as an example of “chemical industry public relations writers” who do not explain their allegiances.
They described the stealth role he played in industry’s “unprecedented public relations blitz that uses many of the same tactics – and people – the tobacco industry used in its decades-long fight against regulation”:
“The most impassioned defense of BPA on the blogs comes from Trevor Butterworth… He regularly combs the Internet for stories about BPA and offers comments without revealing his ties to industry.”
In companion article, Kissinger and Rust described STATS as “a major player in the public relations campaign to discredit concerns” about BPA. Although the group, “claims to be an independent media watchdog,” they wrote:
“a review of its finances and its Web site shows that STATS is funded by public policy organizations that promote deregulation. The Journal Sentinel found documents that show that its parent organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, was paid in the 1990s by Philip Morris, the tobacco company, to pick apart stories critical of smoking.”
Kissinger and Rust noted that Butterworth’s 27,000-word STATS report criticizing media coverage of BPA – which was widely featured on plastic industry websites – “echoed the approach used in the tobacco analysis.”
“Friend” of Coke
In 2014, a Coca-Cola executive described Butterworth as “our friend” to members of a Coke-funded front group, and pitched him as a person who could help fulfill their “need for good scientific journalists,” according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.
The email exchanges involved Rhona Applebaum, then-chief science and health officer for Coca-Cola, and the leaders of the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), which was exposed by The New York Times and Associated Press as a Coca-Cola front group that worked closely with Coke executives to shift blame for obesity away from sugary drinks. Applebaum resigned her position at Coke and GEBN closed down after the scandal broke in 2015.
In a March 2014 email, Applebaum forwarded the GEBN leaders a Harvard Business Review article by Butterworth that attempts to discredit research linking sugar to weight gain, and described him as “our friend.”
In a November 2014 email chain, Applebaum and the GEBN leaders discussed the need to recruit scientific institutions and get more scientists “on the circuit.” Applebaum recommended “the need for good scientific journalists as part of GEBN who focus on the evidence. Presenting for consideration Trevor Butterworth. Need that type of cross-fertilization.”
GEBN vice president Steven Blair wrote, “I agree with Rhona about Trevor. I am pretty sure he is on my list of potential members.” Applebaum replied, “He’s ready and able.”
Ally of Many Industry Groups
Butterworth’s extensive writings defending chemicals, sugar and sugar substitutes have attracted the praise of many industry groups over the years.
Trade groups that have promoted Butterworth’s work include the American Beverage Association, the American Chemistry Council, the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, the International Bottled Water Association, the International Sweeteners Association, the Plastics Industry Trade Association, the cosmetics industry trade association, the chemical industry’s policy website, the Competitive Enterprises Institute, the Cato Institute and the Center for Consumer Freedom.
Butterworth is also listed as a friend of National Press Foundation. The chair of Sense About Science USA, Heather Dahl, is “immediate past chair” of the National Press Foundation, and sits on NPF’s executive committee.
Sucralose Echo Chamber
Butterworth is a prominent defender of artificial sweeteners whose safety is questionable. In 2011, Butterworth spoke at the International Sweeteners Association Conference and was featured in their press release titled, “Experts Recommend Low-Calorie Sweeteners such as Sucralose to Help Manage Weight.”
Identified as a journalist who regularly contributes to the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, Butterworth said about sucralose, “The weight of considered scientific evidence, the result of careful, independent, expert scrutiny, again and again shows that there is no evidence of a risk to health.”
As an example of how the industry echo chamber works to spin reporters: In 2012, Butterworth wrote an article for Forbes attacking a study that raised concerns about sucralose by Dr. Morando Soffritti, director of the Ramazzini Institute, which he described as “something of a joke.”
In a 2016 press release, in response to another Soffritti study, the food industry front group International Food Information Council featured Butterworth’s 2012 piece and attack quotes, and they were picked up by reporters at the The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and Deseret News, all of whom identified Butterworth as a source from Forbes.
A Google search for the Ramazzini Institute turns up Butterworth’s 2012 Forbes hit piece as the first item.
Funded by Climate Change Denier Dark Money Network
While STATS claims to be nonpartisan, the bulk of funding has come from a handful of conservative, anti-regulatory foundations that have played a key role in funding organizations that try to discredit climate science.
According to The Intercept investigation:
“Between 1998 and 2014, STATS received $4.5 million, 81 percent of its donations, from the Searle Freedom Trust, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, Donors Trust (a fund largely sustained by Charles Koch), and other right-wing foundations. Searle, which describes its mission as promoting ‘economic liberties,’ gave STATS $959,000 between 2010 and 2014.
Anti-regulatory foundations, including these, spent over half a billion dollars between 2003 and 2010 to ‘manipulate and mislead the public over the nature of climate science and the threat posed by climate change,’ according to a 2013 study by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle.”
In the press release about his study, Brulle identified the Scaife and Searle foundations as among “the largest and most consistent funders of organizations orchestrating climate change denial” and foundations that “promote ultra-free-market ideas in many realms.”
The Scaife Foundation and Searle Freedom Trust have been key funders of STATS, with Scaife providing nearly all funding for the group between 2005 to 2007, according to a Greenpeace investigation of STATS funding, and Searle stepping up with almost a million dollars in funding between 2010 and 2014.
The President and CEO of Searle Freedom Trust, Kimberly Dennis, is also chairman of the board of directors of Donors Trust, the group Mother Jones called the “dark-money ATM of the conservative movement,” and a leading funder of climate change denier and skeptic organizations. Under Dennis’s leadership, the Searle Foundation and Donors Trust sent a collective $290,000 to STATS in 2010, Greenpeace reported.
Koch Industries / George Mason University Foundation
Charles Koch, CEO of the petrochemical conglomerate Koch Industries, gave over $100 million to 361 college campuses from 2005 to 2014, according to a Greenpeace analysis of IRS filings. The George Mason University Foundation, which received $45.5 million, was by far the largest beneficiary of this largesse.
Students at GMU raised concerns about Koch funding in a 2014 letter to the GMU president, noting that the university has been “criticized as being a subsidiary of Koch Industries.” In response to a public records request for information about Koch funding, the students “were told that all financial donations are funneled through the GMU Foundation, which does not have to respond to our FOIA request as a distinct private entity.”
The GMU Foundation funded STATS sister organization CMPA $220,990 in 2012, and $75,670 in 2013, according to tax records. In those years CMPA also helped finance STATS. In 2012, STATS reported a $203,611 loan from CMPA that “due to inadequate funding” has “not been reimbursed.” In 2013, STATS reported a loan from CMPA for $163,914.
Tax records for 2014 show no loans between the groups or donations from GMU Foundation. CMPA’s 2014 tax filing shows compensation of $97,512 for Butterworth and $173,100 for Jon Entine, a longtime public relations operative with deep ties to the chemical industry, who runs the Genetic Literacy Project, an agrichemical industry front group.
STATS now shares a website with Sense About Science USA, and provides this note about funding:
“STATS.org is run by Sense About Science USA; it is funded grants from the Searle Freedom Trust and a donation from the American Statistical Association. Sense About Science USA is funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and donations from members of the public. Sense About Science USA does not accept industry funding or support. Sense About Science USA is wholly independent of any university, society, or other organization.”
The website conveys a sense of grassroots support, noting that its campaign calling for the registration of clinical drug trials has drawn 30,000 donors. “We don’t have fancy offices. Sense About Science USA is in the back of a bakery and cafe. We put our money into doing, and every little bit helps.”
Both STATS and Sense About Science have roots in the tobacco industry PR wars.
STATS and CMPA were founded by Robert Lichter, PhD, a former Fox news commentator and professor of communications at GMU. Phillip Morris contracted with CMPA and Lichter during the 1990s, according to documents from the Tobacco Institute made available by the UCSF tobacco industry documents library.
In 1994, Phillip Morris sought CMPA’s help dealing with the “recent onslaught of attacks on the tobacco industry” in the media, according to an internal memo proposing strategies to “refocus the media’s attention on the need for objectivity.”
In an email dated February 8, 1999, Phillip Morris vice president Vic Han referred to CMPA as “a media watchdog group that we have contributed to over the last several years,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
The founder of Sense About Science, Dick Taverne, also appears in the UCSF tobacco industry files. As Liza Gross explains in The Intercept:
“According to internal documents released in litigation by cigarette manufacturers, Taverne’s consulting company, PRIMA Europe, helped British American Tobacco improve relations with its investors and beat European regulations on cigarettes in the 1990s. Taverne himself worked on the investors project: In an undated memo, PRIMA assured the tobacco company that ‘the work would be done personally by Dick Taverne,’ because he was well placed to interview industry opinion leaders and ‘would seek to ensure that industry’s needs are foremost in people’s minds.’
During the same decade, Taverne sat on the board of the British branch of the powerhouse public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which claimed Philip Morris as a client. The idea for a “sound science” group, made up of a network of scientists who would speak out against regulations that industrial spokespeople lacked the credibility to challenge, was a pitch Burson-Marsteller made to Philip Morris in a 1994 memorandum.”
Taverne stepped down as chairman of Sense About Science in 2012. Sense About Science USA launched in 2014 in Brooklyn under the direction of Butterworth. The two groups are described as sister organizations with “close ties and similar aims.”
Exposing ‘Bogus Science’ Through the Living Marxism Network
Lord Taverne founded Sense About Science in 2002 to “expose bogus science,” according to his memoir. As Liza Gross explained in The Intercept, early sponsors of the group included some of Taverne’s former business clients and companies in which he owned stock.
As its first projects, Sense About Science organized a letter from 114 scientists lobbying the British government to “contradict false claims” about GMOs, and conducted a survey highlighting the problem of vandalism against GMO crops.
In 2000, Taverne helped create the “Code of Practice: Guidelines on Science and Health Communication,” a manifesto from the Social Institute Research Center and the Royal Institution on the procedures journalists and scientists should use to avoid unjustified “scare stories” in the media.
The Guidelines were the foundational document for Sense About Science and its sister organization, the Science Media Centre, a group that has been called “science’s PR agency.” Partly funded by corporations, the Science Media Centre often promotes the views of scientists who downplay risk about controversial technologies and chemicals, and its earliest work involved defending GMOs using stealth tactics.
As writers George Monbiot, Zac Goldsmith, Jonathan Matthews and others have documented, both Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre originated from and are directed by a network of people connected to the Revolutionary Communist Party, which later morphed into Living Marxism, LM magazine, Spiked Magazine and the Institute of Ideas, which promote an idealized vision of technology, extreme free-market views and disdain for environmentalists.
As Monbiot wrote in 2003, “the scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network.”
The Intercept: How Self-Appointed Guardians of ‘Sound Science’ Tip the Scales Toward Industry
The Atlantic: How Lobbyists are Spinning Weak Science to Defend BPA
Columbia Journalism Review: BPA, Health and Nuance: STATS report criticizes media coverage but has its own faults
Consumer Reports: Industry Reacts to Consumer Reports BPA Report
CJR: Meet the man who wants to help journalists with numbers
USRTK: Jon Entine: The Chemical Industry’s Master Messenger
The Ecologist: Why is Cornell University Hosting a GMO Propaganda Campaign?
More on funders:
Washington Post: Scaife: Funding Father of the Right
Drexel University: Not Just the Koch Brothers: New Drexel Study Reveals Funders Behind the Climate Change Denial Effort
DeSmog Blog: Scaife Family Foundations
DeSmog Blog: Charles G. Koch; Richard Mellon Sciafe; Searle Freedom Trust; Donors Trust: Study Details Dark Money Flowing to Climate Science Denial
Associated Press: George Mason University Becomes a Favorite of Charles Koch
Huffington Post: To Charles Koch, Professors are Lobbyists
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