ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

8 January 2002


1. SIRCus and CSPI nuzzle up? - ngin
2. CSPI responds to the SIRC-us Guidelines - SIRC


1. SIRCus and CSPI nuzzle up?

The US-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) last year took a $200,000 donation from the pro-GE Rockefeller Foundation to "broaden public debate on genetic engineering in agriculture". The UK-based SIRC-us (SOCIAL ISSUES RESEARCH CENTRE) is in bed with the food and drinks industry. How strange, then, that the two should suddenly discover an apparent point of agreement or two - the main one being that GM foods are just hunky-dory!

Now the SIRC are pleased to report CSPI's interest in their Science and Health reporting guidelines, drawn up by the SIRC in co-operation with the likes of the Royal Society, Baroness Susan Greenfield, Sir John Krebs FRS and a number of other rabid biotech supporters.

The CSPI has, in fact, suggested some improvements to the guidelines particularly relating to the issue of scientists' conflicts of interest. Some of these suggestions, in fact, usefully point to gaping holes in the guidelines in this regard. However, CSPI have simply lost the plot if they think the science and media work of the SIRC-us has anything remotely to do with limiting the power to exploit the media of scientists who may be in cahoots with industry.

The truth is that the holes in the SIRC-us guidelines have been left gaping for a very good reason - the  SIRC-us and their science-establishment supporters, being themselves up to their necks in the world of industrially aligned science, don't see conflict of interest ( at least in terms of corporate funding, commercial vested interests etc.) as a major problem. As a result, they pay the briefest of lip-service to the issue while the guidelines are actually intended to inhibit coverage of the views of scientists who might connect, however indirectly, to undesirable public interest groups (a point made abundantly clear in the SIRC-us commentary below - item 2).

Similarly, issues like peer review will only be invoked selectively, ie in relation to those scientists whose views are seen as problematic, or those journalists who dare to report them. Thus, when PPL Therapeutics achieved a major hike in its share price via media hype over their piglets for xenotransplanation *by releasing news on this ahead of peer-review* (a means, in fact, of stealing a march on a commercial rival and of offsetting the investor impact of news of Dolly's arthritis), the SIRC uttered not one word of disapproval. The lack of peer review and the commercial motivation of PPL's media work were simply disregarded, as were the hyping of the highly dubious prospects of xenotransplantation. PPL, after all, is a favoured child of the UK's science establishment and their media work was good for business.

The best laugh in the item below is, in fact, the SIRC's statement that, "We are happy that the Guidelines and the CSPI comments [on the need to do more to expose and offset conflicts of interest] should be considered when judging the content of articles and bulletins on our own web site."

While its website tends to contain articles with headlines such as, "More evidence that drinking is good for you" and the SIRC informs us that it has "repeatedly warned health promotion bodies about the dangers of banning or attempting to restrict consumption of so-called 'unhealthy' foods", its commercial arm, MCM Research Ltd, just happens to have a client list that includes a number of very well known firms from the food and drink industry! []

Similarly, the SIRC's abhorrence of "scares" and "miracles" in science-reporting has never extended as far as "scaremongering" about organic food, which it gleefully encourages - any more than to claims of GM crop miracles.

For more on the SIRC-us guidleines:


2. CSPI responds to Guidelines

This article is posted at

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is an organisation that we have not always viewed as being the true champion of balanced and evidence-based debate. In its pursuit of "improving the safety and nutritional quality of our food supply and on reducing the carnage caused by alcoholic beverages" it has, in our view, generated more than a few unfounded scares and unnecessary panics. A report on shellfish titled "Death on the Half Shell" is typical of the alarmist style. Its current campaign to "Save Harry Potter" from Coca Cola, who have the marketing rights to the movie, might also be seen as lacking a little in humour: "Coke and other soft drinks are JUNK, and certainly not what Harry would want kids to drink."

In contrast, however, to what Tufts Nutrition Navigator has described as their "sensational and alarmist tone", the CSPI has taken a remarkedly sane stance on the issue of genetically modified foods. Indeed, it went so far as to accept a $200,000 donation from the pro-biotech Rockefeller Foundation to "broaden public debate on genetic engineering in agriculture". In Of public interest" we applauded their press release which announced that "Genetically Engineered Foods On The Market Appear To Be Safe".

Now the CSPI has responded with reciprocal enthusiasm to our Guidelines on Science and Health Reporting. In their letter they say:

"We applaud [SIRC's] new Guidelines on Science and Health Communication. It provides much needed guidance on responsible reporting in science and health."

The CSPI, of course is primarily concerned that news media and scientific journals are being used, in their view, "as marketing tools for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies". At SIRC we agree that sources of research funding should certainly be disclosed in press coverage. But other factors, such as ideological commitment, are equally potential sources of bias. Research on the alleged link between abortion and breast cancer, for example, conducted by an anti-abortion, pro-life campaigner, must be subject to particularly critical scrutiny. (See Science or Pro-Life Scaremongering?)

In the spirit of genuine, open debate on these issues we have provided the full text of the CSPI response here. We are happy that the Guidelines and the CSPI comments should be considered when judging the content of articles and bulletins on our own web site. We feel sure that the CSPI will welcome a similar approach when reading their publications and assessing their credibility.

7 January 2002

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