Prof Krimsky has died at the age of 80
We were sad to hear that on 23 April Sheldon Krimsky, who for over more than 40 years made major contributions to the debate on genetic engineering, passed away in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 80.
Stuart Newman, a founding member of the Council for Responsible Genetics that Krimsky headed and a professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, tweeted, “I am very sorry to report the death of my friend and colleague Sheldon Krimsky. Shelly was a scholar who chronicled corruption in, and misuse of, science, and an activist of the highest integrity in opposition to these practices.”
On their website, Tufts University, where Krimsky was the Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, describe him as “a truly adored professor”.
A Tufts obituary notes that he had “taught at the university for more than 47 years, focusing on the links between science, technology, ethics, and public policy”. He was also an adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts School of Medicine, and a visiting scholar at Columbia, Brooklyn College, the New School, and New York University.
When it came to one of the major focuses of his work – genetic engineering – Sheldon Krimsky never bought into the hype: “The proponents of GMOs think it’s a golden goose,” he once said. “It’ll solve world hunger; it’ll be able to solve climate change issues, all kinds of things. So far we don’t have any evidence that any of this is true.” That didn’t mean, Krimsky said, that he was opposed to GMOs, just skeptical: “One of the core values of science is ‘organized skepticism’. When claims are made, you have to start with skepticism until the evidence is so strong that your skepticism disappears. You don’t in science start by saying ‘Yes, I like this hypothesis and it must be true.’”
One of his biggest concerns was that scientists were sometimes prepared to abandon their skepticism because of the corrupting influence of conflicts of interest and the commercialization of science – something that he exposed in groundbreaking work and reported on in his highly regarded book, Science in the Private Interest. A review in American Scientist described the book as “shrewd, unsparing, and never shrill” and as “obligatory reading for anyone who values the role that science plays in the political life of the United States”. The reviewer went on, “With a scholar's care and an idealist's unswerving allegiance to unfettered scientific inquiry, Krimsky explores the true public cost of the transformation of university-based research into a tool of commercial self-interest.”
In an interview, Krimsky explained how that transformation came about: “In the… middle 1980s, the biotech industry began to emerge… corporations were investing in universities; they were putting money into universities. And if you were a university researcher with federal funding and you hit it big — made a discovery — the government said you can keep the intellectual property, form a relationship with a company and share the resources, share the money, the patents [and] the wealth.”
And Krimsky was prepared to point up the problems that this had created, no matter how eminent the people involved. In a 2017 paper that he published with the journalist Tim Schwab in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, for instance, he exposed how nearly a third of the 20 scientists invited to contribute to the prestigious National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s (NASEM) report assessing the health, environmental, and agronomic impact of genetically modified crops had ties to the agbiotech industry that not only went undisclosed in the report, but that NASEM had flatly denied existed.
Paying tribute to Krimsky, molecular geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou said, “He was a courageous scholar who was dedicated to the public good and was neither intimidated by corporate power nor deceived by corporate spin.”
In 1979 Krimsky was asked to serve on the National Institute of Health’s national Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee. This was not long before he started to earn a reputation as a powerful critic and one has to wonder whether they would have appointed him if they had known how effective a critic of abuses of science he would soon become. He also became a consultant to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research and chaired the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he was a fellow.
In addition to publishing 17 books on issues like the intersections between science and ethics and the risks of GMOs and endocrine disruptors, he also published over 200 articles, essays and peer reviewed scientific papers on these topics. With his 2021 paper, Can glyphosate-based herbicides contribute to sustainable agriculture?, for instance, he made a useful contribution to the glyphosate debate by providing an in-depth examination of the scientific literature on their impact on issues such as human health, no-till agriculture, soil quality, aquatic ecosystems, and beneficial non-target species (summarised here).
He was keenly interested in the issue of GMO food safety. He took the time and trouble to read the book GMO Myths and Truths, which is co-authored by GMWatch editor Claire Robinson and has several chapters devoted to this topic, and he corresponded with the authors about their findings. Driven by the curiosity of a true scientist as well as the humility that comes from recognising the limits of current scientific knowledge, Krimsky went on to do his own research in this field and published an important paper on the illusory nature of the claim of a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. In the paper, he cited many animal feeding studies that found adverse health impacts from GM crops, as well as examining the role that politics and corporate interests have played in distorting honest inquiry into these effects.
You can see what a gifted communicator Krimsky was in a related lecture (available on the GMWatch website), in which he debunks the argument that the public should be reassured by claims that 95% of studies find no concerns with GMO foods. Would we be reassured, Krimsky asks, by knowing that 95 out of a 100 test flights of a new type of jet had gone without a hitch? Would we just dismiss the remaining test flights where things had gone wrong? No, they are exactly the ones that we would want to focus in on before declaring the jet safe for commercial flights. Likewise, “when it comes to assessing the risk of products, food or drugs, we can learn much more from the studies that show hazards than from the ones that do not”. He goes on to express his disgust at the disgraceful treatment of some of the scientists who have made such discoveries, like Arpad Pusztai, who, as it happens, predeceased Krimsky by just a few months.
In the Tufts obituary, Julian Agyeman, a professor in Krimsky’s department and its interim chair, sums him up like this, “Shelly never gave up hope of a better world, whether it was his work on risk perception, abuses of corporation-funded research, hormones, GMOs or DNA. He was the consummate activist-advocate-scholar.”
You can learn more about Sheldon Krimsky here. And his family have invited people to share memories of him here. One comment reads, “The beloved Professor brought so much joy to this world. I've loved watching how excited he would be to contribute to interesting conversations, how inquisitive he was, and how deeply he adored his family. We love you all and will remember Papa Krimsky always.”