Sheldon Krimsky, who warned about the profit motive in science, dies at 80

Sheldon Krimsky, a leading environmental ethicist who explored issues related to science, ethics and biotechnology, and who warned of the dangers of private companies funding and influencing academic research, died April 23 in Cambridge. , Mass. He was 80 years old.

His family said he was in a hospital for tests when he died and they did not know the cause.

Dr. Krimsky, who taught at Tufts University in Massachusetts for 47 years, warned comprehensively about the growing conflicts of interest universities face as their academic researchers accept millions of dollars in grants from corporate entities such as pharmaceutical and biotech companies. .

In his book “Science in the Private Interest” (2003), he argued that the lure of profit could corrupt research and, in the process, undermine the integrity and independence of universities.

But his extensive public policy work went far beyond pointing out the dangers inherent in the commercialization of science. Author, co-author, or editor of 17 books and more than 200 journal articles, he delved into numerous scientific fields—stem cell research, genetic modification of foods, and DNA privacy among them—and sought to identify potential problems.

“He was the Ralph Nader of bioethics,” Jonathan Garlick, a stem cell researcher at Tufts and a friend of Dr. Krimsky, said in a telephone interview, referring to the longtime consumer advocate.

“He was saying, if we don’t slow down and pay attention to important checkpoints, once you let the genie out of the bottle, there could be irreversible damage that could persist for many generations,” Dr Garlick added. “He wanted to protect us from irreversible damage.”

In “Genetic Justice” (2012), Dr. Krimsky wrote that DNA evidence is not always reliable and that government agencies had created large DNA databases that posed a threat to civil liberties. In “The GMO Deception” (2014), which he edited with Jeremy Gruber, he criticized agriculture and the food industries for changing the genetic makeup of food.

His latest book, published in 2021, was “Understanding DNA Ancestry,” in which he explained the complications of ancestry research and said that the results of different genetic ancestry testing companies could vary in their conclusions. More recently, he was beginning to explore the emerging topic of stem cell meat: meat made from animal cells that can be grown in a lab.

Mr. Nader, in fact, had a long association with Dr. Krimsky and wrote the introductions to some of his books.

“There was really no one like him: rigorous, brave and prolific,” Nader said in an email. “He tried to convey the importance of democratic processes in open scientific decision-making in many areas. He criticized scientific dogmas, saying that science should always leave options open for revision.”

Credit…Rowman & Littlefield Publisher

Sheldon Krimsky was born on June 26, 1941 in Brooklyn. His father, Alex, was a house painter. His mother, Rose (Skolnick) Krimsky, was a garment worker.

Sheldon, known as Shelly, majored in physics and mathematics at Brooklyn College, graduating in 1963. He earned a Master of Science in physics from Purdue University in 1965. At Boston University, he earned a Master of Philosophy in 1968. and a doctorate in philosophy of science in 1970.

He met Carolyn Boriss, who was an artist and teacher who later became a playwright and author, at Cambridge in 1968. They married in 1970.

She survives him, as does a daughter, Alyssa Krimsky Clossey; a son, Elliot; three grandchildren; and a brother, Sidney.

Dr. Krimsky began his association with Tufts in what is now called the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy in 1974 and helped build it for decades. He also taught ethics at Tufts University School of Medicine and was a visiting professor at Columbia University, Brooklyn College, the New School, and New York University.

He began exploring conflicts of interest in academic research in the late 1970s when he led a team of students in an investigation into whether the chemical company WR Grace had contaminated drinking water wells in Acton, Massachusetts.

Dr. Krimsky has said that when the company learned that it would release a negative report (the pits were later designated a Superfund site), one of its top executives asked the president of Tufts to bury the study and fire him. The president refused. But Dr. Krimsky was concerned that the company had tried to interfere, and that prompted him to begin studying how corporations, whether or not they made financial contributions, sought to manipulate science.

“He spoke truth to power,” said Dr. Garlick. “He wanted to give skepticism a voice and give skeptics a voice.”

Dr. Krinsky was a longtime advocate of what he called “organized skepticism.”

“When claims are made, you have to start with skepticism until the evidence is so strong that your skepticism is gone,” he told The Boston Globe in 2014. “In science, you don’t start by saying, ‘Yeah, I like this hypothesis. and it must be true.’”

He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and chaired its committee on scientific freedom and responsibility from 1988 to 1992. He was also a member of the Hastings Center for Bioethics and served on the editorial boards of seven scientific journals.

When he wasn’t working, he liked to play guitar and harmonica. He divided his time between Cambridge and New York City.

“Shelly never gave up hope for a better world,” Julian Agyeman, a professor in Dr. Krimsky’s department and its interim chair, said in a Tufts obituary. She “was the consummate activist-advocate-scholar.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.