Anatomy of a science meeting: How controversial pesticide research all but vanished from a major conference

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Illustration by Mark Fiore

If you scroll through the social media posts for the 2023 meeting of the Entomological Society of America, one face jumps out: The Corteva guy.

It’s the face that greeted the 3,000 attendees of the meeting every time they opened the conference app: A smiling, balding man in early middle age, presumably an entomologist, wearing a plaid shirt.

This face of Corteva Agriscience, one of several agrochemical companies that has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization over several years, was so omnipresent that the insect scientists posted memes about it.

At the end of the meeting, the entomologists even joked about how much they would miss him.

Abigail M. Hayes, a postdoctoral researcher, posted: “Shout out to the #Entsoc23 app for letting me hang out with Corteva guy until the very end – I wonder if I leave the app installed and don’t update, will he stay until next year?”

For $65,000, the pervasive “Corteva guy” ad – a slot that was exclusively held by Corteva in 2023 – is just one of the dozens of benefits in packages that corporations can purchase this year through a partnership program from the Entomological Society of America, whose conference is considered the Super Bowl of meetings in the field.

The society, with nearly 7,000 members, is the largest organization dedicated to entomology in the world. It publishes eight scientific journals and offers prestigious awards and fellowship designations for distinguished scientists. Its meetings lend prestige to scientists who are invited to speak.

From 2017 to 2023, the ESA’s corporate partnership program brought in an estimated $1 million, based upon publicly available records.

At its meeting in 2023, scientists encountered the pervasive face of Corteva while presenting research on weighty topics that included the health of bee colonies, the impact of climate change on vector-borne diseases, food insecurity, the unintended effects of pesticides, and exotic topics such as utilizing insects for food and feed in impoverished societies.

However, during hundreds of sessions on these subjects, a significant topic went missing: scholarly research on one of Corteva’s products – neonicotinoids, a factor in one of the most controversial, high-profile areas of research in entomology.

That research concerns whether the neonicotinoids that coat corn and soybean seeds – the most widely used insecticides in human history – contribute to the decline of bee colonies. Extensive research during the last two decades has shown that exposure to this type of insecticide, which was introduced during the 1990s, harms bees’ foraging, survival and immune responses, as well as damages their ability to reproduce and survive the winters. Neonicotinoids have been banned for outdoor uses in the European Union and Québec. 

Manufacturers report that if used properly, the products are safe for bees and other pollinators.

While the scientists who were interviewed for this story said that they felt no influence from corporate interests in the selection of papers that were presented at the ESA meeting, they were surprised to hear that neonicotinoid research barely made a showing.

“I’ve never had a problem getting a neonic paper in a symposium,” said Vera Krischik, a tenure-track associate professor at the University of Minnesota who has conducted extensive research into the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators.

“I’m not going to deny that there is an uninterest, or a bias, to not talk about pesticides and bees,” she said. “I don’t think it’s at the level of the ESA.”

According to the results of a session-by-session review of the conference’s presentations conducted by U.S. Right to Know, the few papers and posters that were dedicated to the effects of neonicotinoids on bees were presented by students, not by scholars. Only four papers and posters that examined the topic made it into the conference, out of nearly 100 papers, posters and symposia on bee science.

In some instances, according to attendees, scholars engaged in general discussions of neonicotinoids and pollinators on panels that were not dedicated to the presentation of specific papers.

Top findings of U.S. Right to Know’s review of the papers, posters, symposia and workshops at the ESA meeting:

  • Out of nearly 100 papers and posters presented on bee science in 2023, four specifically related to the role of neonicotinoids in the declining health of bees. All four were presented by students.
  • By comparison, in 2013, scholars presented at least 19 papers on the effects of neonicotinoids on bees at the ESA meeting.
  • In 2023, 26 percent of the symposia, workshops and science policy sessions were organized by employees from the corporate sector; in most cases, those organizers were employed by agrochemical companies.
  • Also in 2023, 16 percent of panelists in symposia, workshops and science policy discussions were employed by corporations.

Chris Stelzig, the executive director of the ESA, did not dispute these findings, but in a written response to questions from U.S. Right to Know, he pointed out that in a search on the term “neonic” in the conference app, the results show 30 abstracts.

Those results included the student work on the effects of neonicotinoids on bees, as well as research conducted outside bee science, into areas such as resistance to the insecticides among bed bugs and the Colorado potato beetle, effects of pesticides on burying beetles, and effects of pesticides on restoration prairie plants.

Stelzig’s response noted that the ESA “doesn’t prescribe specific topics for coverage in its conference program, nor do we track the trends in conference presentation subjects in detail.

“For any given subject within entomology, what is covered in ESA conference programs reflects the ebb and flow of interest in it among the community and the focus of research being conducted in the field.”

Several entomologists who organized panels in bee science for the conference said that they were surprised to hear that research about the effects of neonicotinoids on bees had all but vanished from the program.

While many of these scientists said that they believe neonicotinoids should be banned to protect bees, they also said that the field has shifted to an approach that accounts for multiple stressors on individual bees and hives, rather than studies of individual factors, and that the research presented at the conference reflects that way of thinking.

That approach to research tracks with the point of view of agrochemical companies, which have posited, for years, that the collapse of bee colonies has occurred as a result of multiple factors – not just neonicotinoids – despite the extensive body of research that shows the harm caused by the products in isolation.

Bayer has even produced a children’s book called Toby and the Bees, in which the perils of mites figure prominently, without a word about neonicotinoids.

Here is an excerpt from a fact sheet on bee health and neonicotinoids by Bayer:

Source: Bayer

Two hundred thousand square feet dedicated to science 

The ESA meeting in 2023 brought in more than 3,000 attendees and offered more than 2,000 presentations.

It was held at the Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center in National Harbor, Maryland. The society used 130,000 square feet of meeting space and an additional 100,000 square feet for the exhibit and poster hall – an area that covered an area greater than two city blocks in Manhattan.


According to the entomological society’s annual report, the group took in more than $1.7 million in revenue for its meetings in 2023. It spent more than $1.6 million on its meetings, leaving the group about $100,000 in the black in that category. In 2022, the society reported that it lost $160,000 in meetings.

The top corporate sponsors for the ESA last year were Corteva Agriscience, which was spun from DowDuPont in 2019; Bayer, a leading seller of neonicotinoids that purchased the Monsanto Co. in 2018; and Syngenta, a Chinese state-owned company based in Switzerland that was acquired by the China National Chemical Corp, also known as ChemChina.

Like Corteva and Bayer, the Syngenta Group sells seeds, seed treatments, herbicides and fungicides.

Other large corporate sponsors are BASF, based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, which manufactures herbicides, and the Racine, Wisc.-based SCJohnson, which sells pest control products.

According to the ESA, the partnership program accounts for the vast majority of donations to the society, but Corteva and Bayer still pay additional fees to sponsor special events at the conference.

Employees of Corteva hold two seats on the ESA’s 18-member governing board. Melissa Willrich Siebert is the incoming vice president for the society and sits on its eight-member executive board. The early career representative on the governing board, Scott O’Neal, also works for Corteva.

Here is the breakdown of top corporate sponsors and how much they gave the society from 2017 to 2023.

Source: Publicly available documents; totals confirmed by ESA.

The ESA confirmed that its total income from the program, over seven years, came to more than $1 million.

The reach of the corporate partners runs deep into the society. According to ESA spokesmen, two Corteva employees serve as editors on three of the organization’s eight scientific journals: the Annals of the Entomological Society of America and American Entomologist. (One serves as an editor on American Entomologist as well as the Journal of Integrated Pest Management.) 

Bayer employees serve as editors for the Journal of Economic Entomology, Environmental Entomology and the Journal of Integrated Pest Management.

The editor in chief of the Journal of Integrated Pest Management started the job while employed in academia and continued in the role after going to work for FMC Corp. FMC, based in Philadelphia, is a leading manufacturer of neonicotinoid products, as well as insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. To date, FMC has not participated in the ESA’s partnership program, according to the ESA.

The society’s publications draw on the expertise of about 350 editors, in total.

According to the ESA’s partnership pricing list, options for companies that pay at the platinum tier include:

  • Sponsorship of mini golf in the exhibit halls at the meeting, with branded golf balls
  • A “Pet a Puppy” event, complete with signage and branded bandanas
  • Banner ads in each of ESA’s newsletters
  • Ads in the society’s scientific journals
  • Email from the company to ESA’s members, sent by ESA
  • Speaking opportunities at the annual meeting’s opening session     
  • Unlimited job postings on the ESA career site

“They’re bringing puppies,” said Nick Chartres, a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney who has written about corporate influence in public health fields. “This stuff is wild.”

Source: Entomological Society of America website

According to Stelzig’s statement from the ESA, the revenue from the corporate partner program accounts for approximately 3 to 3.5 percent of the society’s total annual revenue.

Based on total revenue for 2023, the society took in between $200,000 and $235,000 through the corporate partnership program that year. That funding, Stelzig added, supports a variety of programs – not just the meetings.

“Throughout ESA membership, programs, and publications,” the statement said, “we seek a diversity of scientific expertise, professional backgrounds, and personal perspectives. That diversity ensures a healthy and productive mix of ideas to advance ESA’s mission and strengthen entomology as a scientific field and profession.”

The partnership approach, which the society adopted in 2017, mostly replaced the traditional sponsorship model, in which companies paid for specific receptions and events at meetings.

“This reduced the number of elements of the meeting that were linked to individual sponsors and instead allowed us to recognize groups of partners collectively,” Stelzig’s statement said.

It also said that “ESA’s Corporate Partner program offers companies with an interest in entomology the opportunity to support the entomological community and engage with fellow researchers around their shared interest in advancing insect science. It is a year-round partnership that is not tied into any one specific ESA program, though benefits may include opportunities for visibility and attendee engagement at the Annual Meeting.”

Tess Legg, a research associate in the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath who has developed a “Science for Profit” model to explain how and why corporations influence science, explained that, in various fields, “one key part of this influence has been to push out their preferred scientific messages by infiltrating professional organizations, including through funding and through speaking at their scientific and educational events, and publishing in their academic journals.”

Source: Entomlogical Society of America 2023 annual report

To Chartres, the research fellow in Sydney, the concern with the partnership program lies with the prominence of members from industry in key roles throughout the operations of the society.

“Industry is afforded key positions/roles of influence throughout the society, which allows them to shape the society’s scientific priorities, agenda, and public statements,” Chartres wrote in an email. “Unless you dig, you do not realize there is this level of influence throughout the society.”

According to a statement from Bayer, company officials do not see their employees’ involvement in the partnership program as the exercising of influence.

Bayer’s prepared statement said, “As a global company, we invest and are a part of many science-based organizations around the world.  

“The Entomological Society of America is the largest entomological society in the world. Protecting plants from harmful insects is an important part of what we do at Bayer, so it’s natural for us to be a part of the society and partake in the meeting. Many Bayer employees are active members of this organization, working to advance entomological research for the betterment of our world, and our farmer customers. Bayer employees actively serve on ESA committees, and submit papers for publishing in the ESA journals – our sponsorship of the convention has no bearing on those actions. 

“Our investment in the ESA meeting allows us to invite a number of employees to the conference and have a booth which facilitates networking, and the ability to share our science. The meeting is a mix of both public and private sector scientists, presenting additional opportunity for collaboration.”

Company representatives for Corteva, Syngenta and BASF acknowledged having received questions from U.S. Right to Know about their companies’ involvement in the ESA, but declined to respond. SCJohnson provided an auto-response that acknowledged an inquiry sent through the company’s media web page, but no one from the company responded to the inquiry.

To Chartres, who considered the corporate presence at the meeting, as well as the board members from companies and the journal editors employed by corporations, it appeared that “the entire society is captured by industry.”

“If you are the ‘largest organization in the world serving the professional and scientific needs of entomologists and individuals in related disciplines,’ ” Chartres wrote in an email, “you would expect that people in positions of authority, like the governing board and editor-in-chief of a journal on pest management to be free of conflicts of interest.

“You can essentially buy credibility and endorsement in this society if you have the money.”

For the ESA, corporations are part of the entomological community as major funders of research and employers of entomologists.

“Throughout ESA membership, programs, and publications, we seek a diversity of scientific expertise, professional backgrounds, and personal perspectives,” Stelzig’s statement said.

 “That diversity ensures a healthy and productive mix of ideas to advance ESA’s mission and strengthen entomology as a scientific field and profession.”

On the topic of pesticides, debate can turn into intimidation

In a half-dozen interviews with presenters and organizers at the ESA conference – interviews that covered one-third of the organizers of bee science panels – most of the scientists said that they perceived that this meeting was dominated by corporations, much more than smaller conferences put on by universities and groups oriented toward bee health.

(Seven of the organizers of bee science panels worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose communications department forbade its scientists from speaking with U.S. Right to Know for this story.)

Not every presenter has had an easy time when talking about pesticides at the ESA meeting.

Emily May, a pollinator conservation biologist who studies pesticides for the Xerces Society, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit group, recounted facing intimidation by agrochemical industry attendees after her talk.

She spoke at the meeting about how government regulators focus on the effects of individual pesticides on pollinators without factoring in the cumulative effects of a range of chemicals.

After she spoke, she said, five people from the audience stepped up and fired off highly technical questions, such as whether she had completed indexes of cumulative effects.

“Questions came in with ‘Have you done indexes about toxicity?’ . . . They were just getting very technical in their specific pushback on approaches to looking at cumulative toxicity,” May said.

“It was like my worst-case scenario, really. It made me nervous about the next conference I presented at, to be honest. It’s hard. People wanted to make me look bad.”

The source of that onslaught of technical questions: Employees of agrochemical companies, May said.

Stelzig’s statement noted that the ESA maintains a code of conduct that prohibits harassment at its events.

“As in any scientific field—and given the diversity of expertise and perspectives across entomology—healthy, constructive debate is a natural aspect of the exchange of ideas, and it is an important part of the scientific process,” his statement said. “At ESA conferences, our code of conduct fosters civil discourse and prohibits behavior that is threatening or harassing.” 

May said that she had expected to face an audience that drew from industry because her talk involved pesticide regulation. 

“I knew that it was likely to have an industry audience, that it was likely to have pushback,” she said. “So I didn’t exactly go in unprepared. I knew that what I was saying was not palatable to some parts of the audience.”

Even so, it’s not an experience that she is eager to repeat. 

“I really don’t enjoy being in that scenario personally. I will have to work my nerve back up again, to do it again,” May said. 

She also said that it was easier to get papers on any topic into the conference when she was a graduate student. She was not surprised to hear that neonicotinoid research was exclusively presented by students at the 2023 conference.

“On the grad student side of things, there’s a whole different mix of types of research being presented,” May said. “I don’t think there’s any direction on that side of things. I remember, when I was in grad school, I could submit a talk on anything and participate in the grad student sessions. . . . It’s a very diverse set of topics.”

Scientists who organize panels and present papers differ over whether research is marginalized when it is presented by students rather than full scholars.

“It should be that way,” Krischik said. “You get a grant, you put a student under grant, and they have to present papers, because they need a job. . . . So absolutely, it should be the students doing the papers.”

On the other hand, some researchers view scholarly presentations as carrying more weight.

“In general, what I find is that students, unless they’re at the end of their Ph.D., do not have a full, complete story,” said James Nieh, professor of biology in the department of ecology, behavior and evolution at the University of California at San Diego.

“They may have less weight in giving the presentation than somebody, for example, who’s a junior professor or a postdoc, who has a full story to dedicate a talk about.”

The ‘largest organization dedicated to entomology in the world’

The Entomological Society of America is based in Annapolis, Md.

Aside from its thousands of members, scientific journals and fellowships for distinguished scientists, the society offers certification study courses, leadership training and robust job listings for entomologists who are starting their careers.

If anything, the robust recruitment environment at its meetings has attracted criticism as a “pipeline to industry.” 

Symposia at the ESA conference in 2023 included sessions called “Learn More About Industry Careers, It’s Not the Dark Side!” as well as “How I joined the pest control family” and “We’re Not the Ferengi Either.”

It’s hard to overstate the organization’s prominence in the field.

According to its 2023 annual report, the nonprofit organization holds more than $5 million in investment reserves. Its total revenue in 2023 was $6.4 million, including the $1.7 million that came from attendees of meetings as well as organizations such as exhibitors.

Source: Entomological Society of America 2023 annual report

In the science world, the ESA’s meetings are as influential as its standing in the field; researchers present critical findings on hundreds of topics. Many papers relate to phenomena that threaten insect species as well as the nation’s food supply.

A glance at the group’s conference program conveys the magnitude of the research presented through the society. Here are a few of the sessions from the program in 2023:

  • “The Impact of Climate Change on Vector-Borne Diseases: Navigating the Social and Political Landscape”
  • “Unbiased Introduction: Is it more important to prioritize honey bee or native pollinator health for long-term food security within North America?
  • “Role of Pesticides in Addressing Food Insecurity”
  • “Food for Thought: Influences of Global Policy and Implementation on Insects as Food and Feed.”

‘ESA can be very competitive’

Seven hundred miles from Maryland, at the Hyatt Regency in Jacksonville, Fla., the American Bee Research Conference held a meeting in 2023. At that conference, 10 percent of the papers that were presented dealt specifically with the effects of neonicotinoids on bees, including one paper presented by a student. The meeting, which is dedicated exclusively to bee science, is much smaller than ESA. In some cases, scientists present the same papers at both conferences.

“We try to accommodate everyone,” said Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, the secretary and treasurer of the American Association of Professional Apiculturists, which organizes the bee research conference.

Funds from the nonprofit bee resource groups that sponsored the events cover less than 10 percent of the cost of the meetings and typically consist of a few hundred dollars for food at the poster sessions.

Chakrabarti Basu has also organized panels at the ESA conference.

“ESA symposium selection can be very competitive,” she said.

Chakrabarti Basu, who is also is also an assistant professor of pollinator health and apiculture at Mississippi State University, described the system like this:

The entomological society develops themes. Then, based on those themes, organizers of symposia and workshops come up with ideas for panels. They submit applications, and, if selected, invite scientists to speak at a symposium or panel. 

Specific topics and papers can be selected on several criteria: Whether they track with the theme; whether they satisfy diversity interests, which can include the diversity of both the scientists and their career stages; and whether the topic is relevant to the changing world.

Chakrabarti Basu has never felt that corporate sponsors influenced her work for ESA.

“A lot of these decisions are made higher up,” she said. “I’ve organized a number of symposia. I’ve organized a number of workshops. Sponsorship had no effect on what I organized.”

She and other scientists noted that the current state of the research into bee colony collapse examines multiple stressors. As a result, bee science is becoming more interdisciplinary than ever.

“If you look at a bee in the landscape,” she said, “that bee is not only facing stress from climate change. It is also facing a mite or a disease stress. Or pesticides. Or poor nutrition. So it is actually a lot of different things that are happening at the same time.”

Several scientists said that 10 years ago, the field had less of an interdisciplinary focus, and research on single stressors, such as neonicotinoids, carried more weight. At ESA’s meeting in 2013, scientists presented at least 19 papers, posters and symposia focused on the effects of neonicotinoids on bees, according to multiple keyword searches of the sessions at that meeting.

S. Hollis Woodard, an associate professor of entomology at the University of California at Riverside, said that as an editor of the journal Current Opinion in Insect Science, a paper on neonicotinoids needs to say something new to get in. For many researchers, the fundamental idea that pesticides are harming bees is settled science, she said.

“I think it’s not as much of a focus,” Woodard said. “To me, now, when I have someone that wants to work on a neonic study, I always say, ‘There has to be something unique and interesting.’ It can’t just be, ‘What if they disrupt something,’ because they definitely do. They disrupt so many different processes in bees.

“For a lot of us bee scientists,” she said, “we already have a verdict. They’re doing harm, and if we care about conserving bee populations, we should do what’s been done in the UK and other countries where they stopped using them.”

The topics at the 2023 ESA meeting reflect that focus on multiple stressors contributing to the decline of bee colonies.

In nearly 100 papers, posters and symposia on bee science presented by scholars, the top topics were:

  • Bees’ thermal tolerance in a warming world, with more than 20 panels and papers on the subject
  • Habitats that improve pollinators’ survival, with 19 panels and papers
  • Bee genetics, with 14 papers, posters and symposia.

Other general areas of research included foraging; social behavior; the effects of varroa mites, which harm bees’ development; and effective beekeeping practices.

Globally, neonic research and citation rates are increasing

While some researchers and symposium organizers at the ESA may be experiencing research fatigue with neonicotinoid studies, a recent review of the global scientific literature, published in the journal Environmental Research in 2022, showed that “the increase in publications over time is significant and shows a dynamic citation pattern. It indicates a comparatively high interest in current research, with ecological issues becoming more and more the focus of international research.”

The survey, conducted by researchers at Goethe University in Frankfurt, drew on the collection of literature in the database Web of Science, and deployed multiple search terms for neonicotinoids.

It showed robust funding for research into the effects of neonicotinoids, particularly in the United States and China, and that “the publication output on neonicotinoids has increased relatively more than in biomedical science as a whole, and also that this increase shows a steady trend with higher rates in recent years.”

The researchers also counted the number of grants for research, as identified in the literature, and found that globally, funding for neonicotinoid research has steadily increased since the products were introduced during the 1990s.

Top global funders of neonicotinoid research: The Chinese government at No. 1, followed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Bayer, according to the review.

Amid a serious downturn, Bayer strives to control the message

One group has a vested interest in keeping negative narratives about the widely used pesticides out of the public eye: The agrochemical industry.

Of the big players in the sector, executives and employees for Bayer Crop Science – the division of the health conglomerate once known as Monsanto – have repeatedly pushed back on the idea that neonicotinoids harm bees.

In company information on bee safety and neonicotinoids, the company wrote that “the existing, extensive data consistently suggests that neonicotinoids, if used responsibly and in accordance with usage recommendations, do not represent an unacceptable risk to honey bees and other pollinators.”

According to Global Market Insights, a global market research and management consulting firm, the neonicotinoid pesticide market was worth an estimated $5 billion in 2023. The firm reported that environmental concerns over pollinator health remains one of the top concerns for the business outlook of the product.

By any account, the Bayer Crop Science business division is in serious trouble, with significant declines in revenue that pulled down stock valuations for the entire company, according to the company’s annual and quarterly reports.

Source: Bayer 2023 annual report

In comments for the company’s 2023 annual report, executives reported that the company’s performance is suffering because of significant losses in legal judgments. Bayer’s provision for the glyphosate litigation totaled $6.3 billion, as of Dec. 31, 2023, from lawsuits over Roundup, an herbicide that has been the target of more than 11,000 lawsuits because of links to cancer.

The Bayer annual report also mentioned the risk of damages from a class action suit by beekeepers in Canada who claim neonicotinoids caused losses of bee colonies and impaired the health of their bees. The plaintiffs allege Bayer and Syngenta were negligent in the design, development, marketing and sales of neonicotinoids and seek both compensatory and punitive damages. Potential damages in the suit, which is moving through the court system in Canada, could reach $400 million, according to a report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

According to the company’s annual report, “Bayer believes it has meritorious defenses and intends to defend itself vigorously” in the suit brought by beekeepers in Canada.

Linda J. Visser, a partner in Siskinds LLP, a law firm that is representing beekeepers in Ontario in the case, said that the class covers at least 500 beekeepers in Québec and 15,000 beekeepers in Ontario. The suit, if not settled, could go to trial in two to three years.

“There’s a lot of research out there – thousands of studies – supporting the link between neonics and harms to bees,” Visser said.

“Neonics were introduced in Canada around 2006,” she said. “And shortly thereafter is when honeybee keepers started experiencing larger than normal bee die-offs. And we saw that in other jurisdictions as well. France is probably an early good example, where, once neonics got introduced in the 1990s, and shortly thereafter, they experienced large-scale bee die-offs.”

When Bayer officials discuss the claims against the company and research that’s critical of any of its products, they use words like misrepresentation and “anti-neonic attack” to describe those claims.

For example, in his message in the 2023 annual report for Bayer, CEO Bill Anderson reported that the company will continue to advance its message about the safety of glyphosate:

“The scientific and regulatory facts are on our side, as was demonstrated again last year, when the safety of glyphosate was confirmed by its reapproval in the European Union. We will make every effort to ensure that the plaintiff attorneys are not allowed to misrepresent these facts in court. After all, we want to invest our resources in innovation, not in the US litigation industry.”

Creating carefully crafted messaging around the company’s products has been common practice for years.

According to documents acquired by U.S. Right to Know under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, in March 2013, David Fischer, a Bayer toxicologist who is now retired, was dismissive toward research that countered Bayer’s narrative about the safety of neonicotinoids.

“I was assuming I’d write up my abstract this weekend,” Fischer wrote to a Virginia Tech scientist who was organizing a panel for the American Chemical Society, “but had to spend it instead preparing a rebuttal to the latest anti-neonic NGO attack paper – this one coming from the American Bird Conservancy.”

The Virginia FOIA documents also showed that Bayer executives aggressively worked to place their employees on conference panels that related to neonicotinoids and bee health for various organizations.

In an email in 2013, Fischer asked Mary Purcell, who is currently a national program leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, to slot in a new employee, along with himself and two others from the company. The “varroa summit,” held by the USDA in early 2014, addressed issues with Varroa mites, a pest that causes deformities in developing bees – and a major focus of agrochemical company research in bee science.

Since then, Cabrera has served in conference slots at the meetings of different organizations.

Since she started the job with Bayer a decade ago, Cabrera has become a visible organizer and speaker at the ESA conference.

In 2023, she was a presenting author at a section symposium called “Beyond the requirements: A multi-disciplinary approach to advancing pesticide risk assessment for pollinators,” a moderator at a graduate competition on pollinator biology, and an organizer of the Latin/Hispanic Symposium who introduced and gave introductory remarks.

The ESA’s ‘pipeline’ to industry

To Emily May, the conservation biologist at the nonprofit Xerces Society, the ESA meeting, more than anything, serves as a pipeline for students to go to work for corporations.

“I went into entomology because I wanted to conserve insects – and specifically bees,” she said.

Her impression of the school-to-industry pipeline is not misplaced. 

The conference offers a rich variety of ways for emerging entomologists to learn about career tracks and training for internships, with 14 separate workshops and symposia targeted at early career attendees at the 2023 conference.

Corteva sponsored a “Women and Allies Entomology Breakfast.” The Latin/Hispanic Symposium was organized by a scientist employed by Bayer Crop Science.

Bayer also sponsored an invitation-only student mixer.

David Inouye, emeritus professor at the University of Maryland, typically presents his research at smaller conferences that focus on his specific area, which involves the interaction between plants and animals. He has not presented at ESA in decades, but he said that the conferences of big, corporate-backed organizations look substantially different from the conferences run by smaller groups.

“One of the most conspicuous differences is the hospitality suites,” Inouye said. “If it’s got a corporate sponsor, they’ll have a hospitality suite and host a reception one afternoon or evening, and provide free drinks and food for people, and that’s something that’s often out of the budgets of nonprofits.”

The big conferences also differ because of their corporate recruiting environment, he said.

At ESA, he said, “they’re trying to attract people who may, at some point, want to work for their companies and do testing for the mortality of insects, testing for the effects on the plants that they’re trying to protect.

“I guess that’s a given, that their economic interest is selling their chemical products, and your research is going to be focused on one aspect or another of those chemical products.”

In one session at the ESA conference in 2023, which was organized by a scientist from Corteva, early career attendees could review CVs and resumes from professors, government researchers and corporate scientists. It was one of several resume-building sessions.

“There’s a real direct pipeline from entomology departments into Syngenta, Bayer, Corteva,” May said.

“This conference is one of those networking opportunities where industry meets students, students meet industry, and then there’s kind of that pipeline towards, ‘Well, if you don’t want to pursue a professorship, or even if you do, come work with us.’ ”

The ESA provided this breakdown of its membership composition:

Krischik, the entomologist from the University of Minnesota, said that the large footprint of the agrochemical companies does not trouble her, because insecticides are an essential part of maintaining the food supply, and the money keeps rigorous science in the public eye. She is quick to add that in her opinion, as a researcher of neonicotinoids, the products should be banned. But she does not find the presence of the companies at the meetings overbearing.

“I don’t think the scientific meetings are run by them or overrun by them,” she said.

“You donate money, you get a perk. . . . It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t. Without pesticides, you’re not going to eat anything. Without pesticides, you can’t live,” Krischik said.

In 2024, the return of the ‘Corteva guy’

For several months after the 2023 conference, the app for the ESA meetings opened and closed without fanfare. It contained vast data from meetings going back to 2019. The presenters were all listed, and the panels and symposia quickly popped up in searches. But the image that left the biggest impression – the Corteva ad — was gone.

Then, before Memorial Day, for just a few days, the whole experience on the app changed. For a $65,000 fee, Corteva Agriscience had renewed its annual partnership with ESA at the new platinum tier, and the face of the agrochemical company returned to the app briefly as the developers prepared for the 2024 meeting.

He was back: The Corteva guy, relaxed, wearing plaid, and squinting his way into the next ballroom.


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