Christopher Wild, Ph.D., has been the director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) since 2009 and during his tenure, the organization has been controversial. With recent rulings on bacon, coffee, and a mildly toxic pesticide, all of which have come down in defiance of every legitimate science body, there have been calls for Wild to resign or be fired from the once-respected body.
He has avoided being terminated but he leaves behind a group with a reputation far removed from the original IARC, whose first director, Dr. John Higginson, was so prestigious among the cancer community he was on the board of the American Council on Science and Health. Like the Council, the original IARC wanted to separate health threats from health scares. Under Wild, they use their press office to attack other agencies, to engage in activism, to brazenly claim they assess risk rather than determine a hazard for further study, and even to threaten pro-science groups who criticize them.
Wild will finally be gone, but undoing the damage he has done will take some time. As a result of his efforts, fellow activists have been placed inside and they have blocked out the world's top experts - from diesel to toxicology to pathology - because they will have consulted for industry. Meanwhile, they specifically exempted IARC insiders being paid by environmental groups from conflict of interest concerns. As you will see, one of the key people under consideration was not only being paid by an environmental group that raised millions campaigning against the herbicide IARC was evaluating, he signed a contract with a trial lawyer to be an expert witness against companies making the herbicide...before the IARC ruling was even released.
Next month, IARC is supposed to announce its new director, someone who will guide the organization for the next five years, and someone who will have to undo the damage Wild and his collaborators in the activist community have done to the reputation of scientific risk assessment.
Here is how I handicap the front-runners. Since this is a United Nations body (1), there is a lot more than science that goes into their decision, so I have tried to discuss those factors as well.
#1 - Dr. Joachim Schüz of Germany, received his Ph.D. in epidemiology from the University of Mainz.
- Pros: He is an IARC insider. He is known to everyone in IARC as a reliable voice for the recent IARC approach to hazard assessment.
- Cons: He is an IARC insider. They recognize they need to cast off the stigma of the Wild era and virtually his entire CV involves IARC. He is European. IARC has been at war with European scientists and agencies who have defied their recent claims. Except for the first director, IARC has always been led by a European and an organization in France always picking a European now looks too insular.
#2 - Dr. Elisabete Weiderpass, now of Finland, received her PhD in epidemiology from Karolinska Institutet, and her M.D. in Brazil.
- Pros: She has excellent credentials and IARC has never been led by a woman. You might think that shouldn't be an issue, but this is the U.N. They changed IPCC membership from being the world's most prominent climate voices to having geographical quotas so science is not always foremost.
- Cons: She is European, which hurts her almost as much as Schüz. She is married to Harri Vainio. While most of us believe that should never make a difference, we are in a world where the head of EPA can't even rent a bedroom in a property owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist without getting outrage from the New York Times. Vainio is very much part of the Old Guard at IARC, exactly the influence the agency wants to have less of starting in 2019, so this impacts her by association.
#3 - Dr. Chris Portier, now of Switzerland. Ph.D. in biostatistics from UNC Chapel Hill.
- Pros: He is well-liked by the environmental community in the United States and Europe because of his advocacy work. He is American. Despite America being the world leaders in science, the dominant funder of IARC and the home of the U.N., Europeans have conscripted IARC as a French group and they want to be seen as more of an international body. He has extensive CDC and NIH experience.
- Cons: Though Portier likely got the most nominations due to his outsized influence among the environmental community, he has a severe lack of credibility. He is the poster child for what has happened to the U.S. government's epidemiology work since Dr. Linda Birnbaum became the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Like much of NIEHS now, he prefers statistical correlation over science. Ethical cloud. He lobbied IARC to declare any industry funding as reasons for exclusion from IARC voting while exempting his work for Environmental Defense Fund. He signed a contract with trial lawyers seeking to sue Monsanto over the herbicide glyphosate before the IARC finding was even released. Age. At 62, he is already at the age where the WHO expects mandatory retirement so he would need a waiver.
#4 - Dr. Shuji Ogino, now of the United States. M.D. from the University of Tokyo School of Medicine and Ph.D. in Pathology from the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Medicine.
- Pros: He has excellent credentials and is Asian. The only place with fewer IARC directors than the United States is the entire eastern half of the world. He is a Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, arguably the most important epidemiology group on Earth, which would show the U.S. Congress, which has IARC in their crosshairs to eliminate and replace with something more modern, that they are serious about scientific reform. He is a pathologist, which steers the organization away from simply using statistical correlation to claim things cause cancer, even if the dose difference is five orders of magnitude, in defiance of common sense.
- Cons: He is Asian and Europeans may want to diversify but not that much. They may prefer a European woman over an Asian man.
#5 - Dr. Sten Dillner of Sweden. M.D. and Ph.D. from Karolinska Institutet.
- Pros: He has excellent credentials. He is a virologist, which steers the organization away from epidemiology and simply using statistical correlation to suggest causation, which has plagued them in the recent past.
- Cons: He is European. This may be the year that IARC uses the controversy created by Wild to opt for more diversity, and Europeans will have a harder time locking it up for their own once again.
#6 - Outside shots. In my discussions, Schuz and Portier are very unlikely because of their link to the IARC scandals but anything can happen. There are other "dark horse" candidates who are also well regarded epidemiologists and could get the nod: Dr. Anna Giuliano, Founding Director of the Center for Infection Research in Cancer at Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa; Dr. David Richardson, Director, Program in Occupational Epidemiology at UNC Chapel Hill; Dr. David Whiteman, Deputy Director at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane.
My prediction: Shuju Ogino. No one will go on the record, of course, but privately representatives from Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain recognize they need more diverse leadership than they can get out of Europe's current candidates, even though two of the Europeans are well-qualified. The wild card is the United States. India, Qater, Morocco and Brazil will likely follow the U.S. lead but while the U.S. State Department casts the vote, the recommendation will come from the National Cancer Institute. Chris Portier is radioactive in American government circles now but his old boss Linda Birnbaum is not, and she may be pressing for IARC to keep the status quo, which would mean she wants Elisabete Weiderpass. I am told Australia will vote for Ogino even though an Australian is on the list, because they won't want to lodge a protest vote.
Either the first vote will come down along predictable lines but then they will want to reach a consensus and Ogino will get the nod. Or the Old Guard will win and their safe choice, Weiderpass, will sail through without any resistance at all. It's IARC, which means it is more politics than science.
(1) The 25 voting countries are the founding members - Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States of America - plus Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, India, Ireland, Japan, Morocco, Norway, the Netherlands, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.