The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) will select this week a new director to replace its controversial outgoing leader Christopher Wild. The research agency’s Governing Council will convene at its Lyon, France headquarters May 16-18 to interview top candidates. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) memo obtained by Politico, 33 candidates are being considered for the position. Given the systemic scientific integrity, transparency and conflict of interest issues that have plagued the agency’s Monographs Program since Wild took the helm in 2009, the Campaign For Accuracy in Public Health Research (CAPHR) views this development as an opportunity for the Monographs Program to begin righting its ship.
How did IARC Get to This Point?
Concerns over IARC’s Monographs Program’s scientific integrity and transparency issues escalated under Wild’s watch. Over the past several years, the Program has made increasingly baffling and scientifically unsupported Monograph conclusions that everyday products and activities such as cell phones, night shifts and red and processed meat are carcinogenic to humans, leading the public and reputable, renowned scientists worldwide to question the legitimacy and scientific integrity of the Program’s findings.
IARC was also widely criticized during Wild’s tenure for continuing to use the term “risk” in the title of official Monograph documents. While it may seem like a simple debate over semantics, the distinction is critical. The agency only evaluates cancer hazard, which is just an initial first step in the far more relevant risk evaluation process. A hazard-based evaluation approach does not account for critical factors that help determine a substance’s cancer risk such as exposure and dose, and their application in real-world scenarios. This is a severely antiquated approach for conducting thorough cancer risk assessments.
Scrutiny over the agency’s processes also grew in 2015 when IARC determined that the widely used herbicide glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” IARC’s determination was a textbook definition of an outlier, considering every other reputable scientific and regulatory authority that has considered the issue has determined that glyphosate is not a carcinogen.
And concern over the Monograph Program’s processes and lack of transparency reached a fever pitch when Wild refused a request by the House Science Committee to provide IARC representatives to serve as witnesses at a hearing on IARC’s transparency issues. Wild also reinforced concerns over the Program’s lack of transparency when he stated that it is “standard practice” to keep “draft and deliberative materials secret.” Despite Wild’s refusal to cooperate, the House Science Committee held a hearing in early 2018 into IARC’s transparency issues, questionable conflicts of interest, and potential misuse of taxpayer funds.
Given IARC’s questionable scientific methodologies and confusing communications, increased congressional scrutiny, and back-to-back transparency concerns reported by Reuters, it’s no wonder why the agency is soliciting a new IARC Director.
After a rough year full of controversy, the agency is clearly at a crossroads. Selection of a new IARC director presents a unique opportunity for the research agency to change its course and institute much needed reform to its Monographs Program. CAPHR hopes it will choose the right path forward.