Does the Victorian Radiation Advisory Committee have a conflict of interest issue… and does the government really care?
Don Maisch PhD Commentary
January 30, 2016
I have previously written about this issue on my blog in November 2012 but nothing has changed since at the Victorian Radiation Advisory Committee, so here we go again!
On January 22, 2016, I received a letter from a Victorian resident who is concerned about the roll-out of smart meters in that state. Attached to his letter was a letter sent to him by Lily D’Ambrosio MP, the Victorian Minister for Industry and Minister for Energy and Resources. D’Ambrosio tried to reassure the resident that smart meters were perfectly safe by quoting advice given to the Victorian government by Victoria’s Chief Health Officer. The VCMO, in turn, relies on the expert advice from the Victorian Ministerial Radiation Advisory Committee, an expert advisory board consisting of doctors and experts in the field of radiation. It would be a brave politician indeed who dares question this expert body. After all they are the experts, not to be questioned by lessor mortals. The advice given by this committee is that “that there is no substantive evidence to suggest that exposure to radiofrequency radiation such as from smart meters can increase the risk of chronic health effects, such as cancer”
In my opinion, strengthened by my Nov 2012 posting mentioned above, that the Victorian Ministerial Radiation Advisory Committee’s advice on smart meters is the main barrier to having Victorian politicians and other decision makers take seriously the health complaints from affected Victorian residents. Such a denial of the possibility of harm also effectively acts as a block against funding to initiate research in order to determine the extent of a possible public health risk. It also acts to validate the Victorian government’s decision to mandate a statewide roll-out of smart metering technology.
However when it comes to the committee’s expert advice when it comes to radiofrequency/microwave technology (non-ionizing radiation) there is only one person on that committee with relevant ‘expertise’ in this area, Dr. Ken Joyner, a former strategist for Motorola and longtime spokesperson for the telecommunications industry. So when it comes to issues of non-ionizing radiation, such as the smart meter health effects controversy, advice is given essentially based on the opinion of just one member. Dr. Joyner’s affiliation on the Vic Health website is given as “Joyner and Associates, Telecommunications Consultancy”.
Here is current membership of the Victorian Ministerial Radiation Advisory Committee”
Dr David Bernshaw – radiation oncology
Dr Ken Joyner – non-ionising radiation
Dr Roslyn Drummond – radiation oncology
Professor Robert Gibson – radiology
Mr Russell Booth – nuclear medicine
Dr Russell Horney – medical physics
Mr Christopher Perry – radiography
Dr Joanna Lia Wriedt – law and epidemiology
Mr Paul Tomlinson – industrial radiography
Dr Dean Morris – accelerator physics
Mr Paul Marks – nuclear medicine and medical physics
Dr Ray Budd – medical physics.
As for what there is of a conflict of interest policy for Directors of boards for Vic. Health the following is stated (in part):
Transparency is crucial for board accountability in Victoria.
It requires constant attention and skill to identify conflicts of interest.
Boards need a straightforward procedure to identify and manage conflicts of interest.
The Victorian Public Sector Commission provides guidelines for managing conflicts of interest.
Directors of health services board need to be aware of possible conflicts of interest, and boards need a practical procedure for resolving situations where a conflict of interest arises.
Even though this conflict of interest policy is seemingly focused at directors of boards it stands to reason that such a policy should also apply to board members, who would be instrumental in influencing board decisions, especially if a member is the only person on the board with expertise in a certain area under consideration.
When it comes to the expert advice of Ken Joyner on non-ionizing radiation issues there is a potential conflict of interest, which seems to be ignored by Vic Health. Before retiring to become a consultant for the telecommunications industry. Dr. Joyner was Motorola’s Director of “Global EME Strategy and Regulatory Affairs”, He has also represented the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, an industry group, on the telecommunications standards committee and had also represented the Mobile Manufacturers Forum. On the standards Australia TE/7 Committee (RF standard setting) which I also was a member, Dr. Joyner steadfastly denied any health issues on behalf of the industry and has enjoyed the good fortune of being appointed to various expert committees, including the NH&MRC (see below). This is not to denigrate Dr. Joyner’s expertise in telecommunications technology but he has a long-standing and consistent track record of denying any adverse low-level biological hazards beneath the standards, which only provide protection from high level (acute) radiofrequency exposures.
Dr. Joyner has also controversially served as an expert advisor to the NH&MRC on non-ionizing radiation matters and it is relevant to consider an extract from one of my previous papers:
The NH&MRC and radiation politics
Even though the Liberal government had eliminated CSIRO from the non-ionising radiation issue altogether by 2003, the 1994 CSIRO recommendations for a research program were later largely adopted by the NH&MRC, the national peak body offering grants for health and medical research. The CSIRO report had called for an expert committee to be established to oversee an Australian research effort that would critically evaluate the dosimetry and bio-effects of published studies, and create direct lines of communication between research, regulatory and political sectors. It would also design research protocols for critical areas of research and collaborate with international organizations to verify research.
In 1996 NH&MRC did establish an expert committee along the lines of the CSIRO recommendations. Concerned about the potential involvement of the telecommunications industry in this process, Sarah Benson, a researcher for Senator Lyn Allison, wrote to the NH&MRC in early December 1996 asking about industry representation. On December 30 Richard Morris, Assistant Secretary of the Health Research Branch, replied, stating that members of the telecommunications industry would not be involved:
“In regard to your concern about the involvement of industry in the NH&MRC process, let me assure you that members of the NH&MRC Expert Committee will be active researchers without links to the telecommunications industry. This independence from industry is seen as being of great importance to NH&MRC.”
Despite this assurance from the NH&MRC, when it came to appointing a key expert radiation adviser to its EME Expert committee, they chose Dr. Ken Joyner, Motorola’s Director of “Global EME Strategy and Regulatory Affairs”. Dr. Joyner has also represented the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, an industry group, on the telecommunications standards committee and had also represented the Mobile Manufacturers Forum.
Such a complete reversal of their (NH&MRC) former stance that “independence from industry is seen as being of great importance” was most likely a result of direct political interference by the federal government. Joyner has been closely associated with the formulation of government policy on RF exposure when the Government was a majority share holder in Telstra, itself a major conflict of interest. This is seen in the Bioelectromagnetics Newsletter of July/August 1998. In his article titled “Australian Government Action on Electromagnetic Energy Public Health Issues” Joyner’s affiliation was given as representing the Australian Federal Department of Communications and the Arts. Perhaps this was more of a shared interest than conflict of interest as far as the government was concerned.
When asked by Senator Lyn Allison about the advisability of Dr. Joyner being appointed to the NH&MRC Expert Committee to advise on submitted proposals for mobile phone research, Minister Senator Richard Allston saw no conflict of interest because (in part):
Dr. Joyner’s involvement in the EME Expert Committee in relation to communications technology is as an individual and not as a representative of the telecommunications industry or his employer, Motorola.
Despite Allston’s assurance of Dr. Joyner’s advice being independent from Motorola’s corporate objectives, it must be noted that Motorola has been active in attempting to influence mobile phone research internationally. For example, Motorola has played a central role in the European Union’s cell phone research effort. This was not without complaints. As reported in Microwave News (1999) there was a fair amount of discontent on part of European scientists with Motorola’s involvement with the EC research and telling European scientists how to spend research funds.
The NH&MRC has long established conflict of interest guidelines for a wide range of possible situations with a requirement for “Disclosure of interests” which applied to membership of the EME Committee. To quote:
In the case of direct pecuniary interest, members may not take part in any decision to which the potential conflict of interest pecuniary interest applies, and must physically absent themselves from all or any part of a formal meeting or other discussion at which the matter in question is being discussed.
If this requirement was vigorously applied then it is difficult to see how Dr. Joyner could have been involved at all when the matter in question was mobile phone research. However this requirement could conveniently be waived because of an opt-out clause that states: “the Chair of the Expert Committee, in consultation with the other involved members of the Expert Committee, will determine the extent to which a member may be involved in the discussion or decision concerning the matter involving the potential conflict of interest”.
In January 2009 Dr. Joyner announced that he was leaving his Director position at Motorola after 12 years and was “looking for new opportunities to work in the telecommunications industry”. In that same year, Dr. Joyner was listed on the NH&MRC’s Peer Review Honour Roll which acknowledged its many peer reviewers and external assessors who had exhibited “excellent track records and wide-ranging expertise in Australian and international health and medical research fields”. However, under the section “Administering Institution/Employer” he was listed as simply “consultant”.
Now Dr. Joyner enjoys a similar position of influence with the Victorian Radiation Advisory Committee. The political involvement in his appointment is unknown but the primary advice given to the Committee and therefore to the government and ministers on possible smart meter adverse health effects conveniently supports government policy on the roll-out of smart meters in that state.
This situation may not reflect a balanced and objective scientific opinion if we consider the policy of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Although it is in relation to scientific writing, reviewing and editing, the issue of membership affiliations on expert advisory boards is just as relevant.
Conflict of interest exists when an author (or the author’s institution), reviewer, or editor has financial or personal relationships that inappropriately influence (bias) his or her actions. . . . The potential for conflict of interest can exist whether or not an individual believes that the relationship affects his or her scientific judgement. Financial relationships . . . are the most easily identifiable conflicts of interest and the most likely to undermine the credibility of the journal, the authors, and of science itself.
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