Return to the audio for How to Science Episode 8, with scientist Kevin Boehnke.
Kevin Boehnke: My name is Kevin Boehnke. I’m a postdoc in Anesthesiology here at the University of Michigan. I did my Bachelor’s in Biology in LSA, and then completed my Ph.D. in Public Health Environmental Health Sciences in 2017.
Monica Dus: So your Ph.D. was in Public Health studying water quality, but now you’re in Anesthesiology, and you’re studying cannabis there.
You got it. I worked for a while at NSF International, which is a public health and safety company in town, and then started my Ph.D. in public health, which is where this story begins.
I was in the fourth year of my Ph.D., and I was studying public health and global water quality and really trying to figure out what I was gonna to do to make the work that I was doing sustainable. Of course, part of being a Ph.D. student is applying for funding, and I found this fellowship called the Dow Sustainability Fellowship through the Graham Institute of Sustainability. I applied for it and was really proud when I won it.
I also do want to say that what happened is that the Dow Chemical company gave a gift to the Graham Institute of Sustainability, so it’s not like the money came from Dow, and it went straight to me. It went through this intermediate, who then dispensed funds to fellows throughout the university, and it was an internal competition, so it’s a relatively difficult fellowship to obtain.
A few months into the fellowship, I got an email from a U-M faculty member about how Dow was misrepresenting one of its new pesticides to the Environmental Protection Agency. I quote: “I thought it might interest some of you to know what your benefactor is doing for the environment and am hopeful that it might generate discussion.”
This hit me like a lightning bolt. I was pretty shocked about this and thinking, “Oh yeah, we did take this money from Dow. What does this mean?”
I was reflecting on this and thinking, “If I’m doing this work from a public health standpoint, am I selling out when I take this money from Dow?” I disagree with them on a good number of things they’ve done in the past, so what does this mean about my moral compass? Simply trying to really consider what the implications are of taking money to do public health work from a company who in many ways has done some damage to public health. What does that conflict mean, and is it worth it to receive that money, even if there are no strings attached?
Because there’s this explicit no strings attached—there’s no influence of Dow on study design, or anything like that. The situation is simply that I’m gonna acknowledge Dow for funding my work, but they didn’t have anything else to do with it.
To really be as honest as possible about what my work might mean, I feel like I have to really consider these bigger-picture implications.
Even though there are no strings attached—they didn’t have any control over study design or anything about this—I feel like it really was a formative moment that took my science out of academia and placed it squarely in society.
As part of this reflection, I talked to some of the other Dow fellows, who of course received the same email. Nobody was willing to talk about it in a public space, but we kind of huddled in small groups to discuss it. When we got the email, there was this odd kind of silence around what was happening. Everybody acknowledged it, but we really never came together and discussed it, so I still don’t know what people were thinking about. It would be nice to have a sense of how people were responding to that situation. I don’t think they were broadcasting their feelings that intensely.
One of the people who I talked to the most about it—he had a very similar viewpoint as me. He was a student in this faculty member’s lab, and he was like, “I know that Dow has this past that I know my advisor doesn’t agree with—and that I don’t agree with—but I need to do the science that I think is important, so I’m willing to compromise to make that happen.”
I came to the realization that, regardless of whether I was funded by the government through industry, or a foundation, or private wealth (which I don’t have)—regardless of that funding source, I would be constrained in some ways by the views of that agency, and how I was going to talk about my science, and what it was going to mean.
It did give me a sense of the real truth that these institutions are not fully monolithic. They have good people doing work, even if they also have people doing work that I really don’t agree with or might find deplorable. So that was really helpful for my development.
This was also useful as I transitioned out of my Ph.D. and into a new and controversial field centered around medical cannabis.
So, I finished my Ph.D., and I started my postdoc studying cannabis as an opioid substitute in the pain management context. The field is booming. The industry is huge. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. It’s gonna keep growing, both in the United States and globally.
Moving forward, I’m thinking about how I’m going to ask the questions that I want. I’m trying to figure out how to balance the questions that I want to ask, and the perception of my work based on where I got that funding, especially given that I’m junior in the field, and I have a reputation to consider, since part of what I want to do is have a positive impact. I want to be really careful about those things.
As I move forward, if I get to the point that I can’t ask the questions that I want with government funding or within the constraints of academia, I think I’m still open to working with and having financial ties to cannabis companies. What I’d like to continue to do is think about how I can best work within the constraints of the system to ask and answer the types of questions that I think are important and impactful.
If this email came now to a bunch of graduate students, what advice would you give them?
KB: I think the advice I would give is to step out of the lab. Think about what your science means. Why are you doing it in the first place, and who might it impact in society? Who might it benefit? Who might it not benefit, and where do you want to go with it? What are the implications that will affect you as a scientist, as an individual, society as a whole, and the planet as a whole?
Thinking about it that way takes a lot of work and a lot of interest and thought to really think through a good number of the implications. But I think that that actually makes the science more impactful in the long run, when people are really considering those things when they’re coming up with the study design.
It’s cool what you said, because the theme of the podcast season is “how to science in society,” and that’s exactly what you said, right? Thinking about the implications of your research, and not just inside the lab. Stepping outside the lab into society, thinking about what you do—the little can really impact the big.
So, is it fair to say that an email from you to awardees of the scholarship might be quite different than the one you received? Is it possible that the email perhaps didn’t really achieve its goal? Because when you read it, it said, “Let’s have a conversation,” but in fact, a conversation wasn’t a broad conversation among all the fellows, and so I wonder if it perhaps missed the goal?
I guess it depends on how well you know your audience and what the goal is.
If the goal is to have a discussion with the people who are affected by it, I think sometimes being less provocative can allow you to facilitate those kinds of discussions more easily. At the same time, such a discussion might not have this same kind of like knock-you-out-of-your-seat . . . and so I think it’s a question of what the intent is.
Also, if I did it, would I want to go in and facilitate a discussion, or am I hoping that somebody will run with this idea, and think about it a lot, and change because of it?
It seems like your fellowship was fairly unconstrained. The only thing that was constrained was that the money comes from Dow, but they didn’t tell you what you can and cannot publish. They didn’t tell you what area of research you could focus on, and they didn’t tell you what data should be withheld.
So, what are tolerable constraints, and what aren’t?
I think that that is a really good question. It speaks a lot to the context of what an individual scientist would want to do and who their audience is, because as scientists, we do absolutely have audiences. Sometimes it’s just the people in our field, sometimes it’s a certain segment of the population, or voting bloc, or whatever it might be.
I think one of the differences is how funding from industry is viewed in academia versus how government funding is viewed, and I think a lot of people in academia don’t see government funding as having any strings attached. I think that maybe it has fewer, but in shaping the questions that people are asking, and all of the paperwork that goes with getting government funding, it becomes a little bit squishier than “industry funding is bad, and government funding is good.” I think they can both be good, and they can both be bad. It’s just a question of degree, and again, it really depends on the individual preferences of the scientists about what is most important to them. What kinds of questions they really need or want to ask.
And if they can ask those questions with one source but not the other, and they can do it with as few constraints as possible, then they should do it. But they should also go in with open eyes and consider whether, if they take the money from a company, does the company benefit? And if so, does that affect their science?
I agree that it’s really interesting to think about how much stigma we impose on private funding, because that’s the obvious thing, but maybe we don’t think quite as deeply about all the other sources of constraints and bias that are introduced in the normal scientific process in society.
I agree with you that there’s systemic issues, and that’s partly why science is so iterative—hopefully, eventually through enough re-application and good work, the truth will emerge, but then the truth is maybe different than what we thought it might be. And that’s something that I find so exciting about the scientific process and this whole lens through which to view the world.
Now that you’re doing research on cannabis, what sort of things do you think directly apply?
I think one of the big issues in the cannabis space right now is that it’s extremely polarized.
We have people advocating for cannabis who are saying it is a panacea, it’s gonna solve health problems from cancer to Alzheimer’s, the gamut. And then you have people on the other side who say cannabis is a poison, it’s addictive, and it has no potential therapeutic benefit.
Part of how I’m trying to approach this question is to really take a data-driven path as much as possible. I think it’s clear at this point that neither of those extremes is valid, so that nuanced lens of putting science squarely in society is something that I am doing my best to embody as I move forward in this space and to take with a grain of salt the claims made by different sides.
So, something that I look for a lot, then, in the literature is consistency. If consistent trends emerge, then to me, that’s a good sign that what we’re looking at might be true. But, of course, you know that’s difficult when we’re in the midst of this opioid crisis. A lot of people have fixated on cannabis, but it is not gonna solve the whole crisis. It’s a much bigger societal question. It gets to be this really nuanced and interesting question in trying to figure out how best to help the people who can be helped with this method, and then get other people the support that they need who would not be helped by cannabis.
Going back in to the public health space, we dramatically underfund a lot of the things that would help with abuse and addiction. A lot of the things that lead there in the first place—like unemployment, the debt cycle—all of these things that really leave people feeling helpless.
Now, do you check the acknowledgments when you’re done reading a paper, to see who funds the study?
Yeah, I think that’s a good thing to do.
I think if it’s methodologically sound, and people acknowledge the limitations of the data, then to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter who funds it. I think if people are being good scientists, they’ll just put all that out on the table and then see how it stands. The science should be able to speak for itself, but science is a human endeavor. It’s way squishier than that.