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Structured Development and Promotion of a Research Field: Hormesis in Biology, Toxicology, and Environmental Regulatory Science


The ability of powerful and well-funded interest groups to steer scientific research in ways that advance their goals has become a significant social concern. This steering ability is increasingly being recognized in the peer-reviewed scientific literature and in findings of deliberative scientific bodies. This paper provides a case study that illustrates some of the major strategies that can be used to structure and advance a controversial research field. It focuses on hormesis, described as a type of dose–response relationship in toxicology and biology showing low-dose stimulation but high-dose inhibition, or the reverse. Hormesis proponents tout its significance, arguing that substances toxic at high doses and beneficial at lower doses should be regulated less stringently. We identify five strategies employed by hormesis proponents to foster its acceptance: (1) creating institutions focused on supporting hormesis; (2) developing terminology, study designs, and data interpretations that cast it in a favorable light; (3) using bibliometric techniques and surveys to attract attention; (4) aggressively advocating for the phenomenon and challenging critics; and (5) working with outside interest groups to apply the hormesis phenomenon in the economic and political spheres. We also suggest a number of oversight strategies that can be implemented to help promote credible and socially responsible research in cases like this one.