Sheldon Krimsky, a number one scholar of environmental ethics who explored issues on the nexus of science, ethics and biotechnology, and who warned of the perils of personal corporations underwriting and influencing academic research, died on April 23 in Cambridge, Mass. He was 80.
His family said that he was at a hospital for tests when he died, and that they didn’t know the cause.
Dr. Krimsky, who taught at Tufts University in Massachusetts for 47 years, warned in a comprehensive way in regards to the increasing conflicts of interest that universities faced as their academic researchers accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from corporate entities like pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporations.
In his book “Science within the Private Interest” (2003), he argued that the lure of profits was potentially corrupting research and in the method undermining the integrity and independence of universities.
But his wide-ranging public policy work went way beyond flagging the hazards inherent within the commercialization of science. The writer, co-author or editor of 17 books and greater than 200 journal articles, he delved into quite a few scientific fields — stem-cell research, genetic modification of food and DNA privacy amongst them — and sought to pinpoint 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 phone interview, referring to the longtime consumer advocate.
“He was saying, if we didn’t decelerate and concentrate to vital check points, when you let the genie out of the bottle there is perhaps irreversible harm that would persist across many generations,” Dr. Garlick added. “He desired to protect us from irreversible harm.”
In “Genetic Justice” (2012), Dr. Krimsky wrote that DNA evidence isn’t at all times 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 the agriculture and food industries for changing the genetic makeup of foods.
His last book, published in 2021, was “Understanding DNA Ancestry,” by which he explained the complications of ancestry research and said that results from different genetic ancestry testing corporations could vary of their conclusions. Most recently, he was beginning to explore the emerging subject of stem-cell meat — meat constructed from animal cells that could be grown in a lab.
Mr. Nader, in truth, had a protracted association with Dr. Krimsky and wrote the introduction to a few of his books.
“There was really nobody like him: rigorous, courageous, and prolific,” Mr. Nader said in an email. “He tried to convey the importance of democratic processes in open scientific decision making in lots of areas. He criticized scientific dogmas, saying that science should leave open options for revision.”
Credit…Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
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 employee.
Sheldon, often known as Shelly, majored in physics and math at Brooklyn College and graduated in 1963. He earned a Master of Science degree in physics at Purdue University in 1965. At Boston University, he earned a Master of Arts degree in philosophy in 1968 and a doctorate within the philosophy of science in 1970.
He’s survived by his wife, Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky, a playwright, artist and writer, whom he married in 1970; a daughter, Alyssa Krimsky Clossey; a son, Eliot; three grandchildren; and a brother, Sidney.
Dr. Krimsky began his association with Tufts in what’s now called the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning in 1974 and helped construct it up over the many years. He also taught ethics on the Tufts University School of Medicine and was a visiting scholar at Columbia University, Brooklyn College, the Latest School and Latest York University.
He began to explore the conflicts of interest in academic research within the late Seventies, when he led a team of scholars on an investigation into whether the chemical company W.R. Grace had contaminated drinking wells in Acton, Mass.
Dr. Krimsky has said that when the corporate learned that he could be releasing a negative report — the wells were later designated a Superfund site — one in all its top executives asked the president of Tufts to bury the study and fire him. The president refused. But Dr. Krimsky was disturbed that the corporate had tried to interfere, and it prompted him to start studying how corporations, whether or not that they had made financial contributions, sought to govern science.
“He spoke truth to power,” Dr. Garlick said. “He wanted to provide voice to skepticism and provides voice to the skeptics.”
Dr. Krimsky was a longtime proponent of what he called “organized skepticism.”
“When claims are made, you’ve to begin with skepticism until the evidence is so strong that your skepticism disappears,” he told The Boston Globe in 2014. “You don’t in science start by saying, ‘Yes, I like this hypothesis, and it should be true.’”
He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and headed its committee on scientific freedom and responsibility from 1988 to 1992. He was also a fellow of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, N.Y., and served on the editorial boards of seven scientific journals.
When he wasn’t working, he liked to play the guitar and harmonica. He divided his time between Cambridge and Latest York City.
“Shelly never gave up hope of a greater world,” Julian Agyeman, a professor in Dr. Krimsky’s department and its interim chairman, was quoted as saying in a Tufts obituary. “He was the consummate activist-advocate-scholar.”