ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

27 June 2002

NATURE - CONFLICTS OF INTEREST - IMPORTANT ADDITION

Agnet, the Canadian biotech lobby list (sponsors include: Monsanto Canada and Syngenta Seeds), left out of its bulletin one of the letters just published in Nature.  Here it is with the rest of the earlier NGIN bulletin based on Agnet.
---
Sir - The controversy surrounding Quist and Chapela's findings of transgenic introgression in Mexican maize1-4 is taking place within webs of political and financial influence that compromise the objectivity of their critics.

The eight authors of the two published criticisms1, 2 of Quist and Chapela's paper4 have had all or part of their research funded by the Torrey Mesa Research Institute (TMRI), an offspring of the agricultural biotechnology company Novartis (now Syngenta).

The affiliation of seven of those authors with TMRI is a result of that company's $25-million 'strategic alliance' with the University of California (UC), Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. Wilhelm Gruissem, formerly of UC, Berkeley and architect of the strategic alliance, whose laboratory is in partnership with TMRI, is the supervisor of the eighth author, Johannes Fütterer. None of the eight authors declares this funding as a competing financial interest in their published contributions.

Such a funding arrangement might be less noteworthy had Chapela and Quist not been leading critics of the strategic alliance and its implications for scientific freedom and balance. Their vocal opposition to the alliance jeopardized a large flow of financial support for the authors of the criticisms.

Compromised positions extend beyond those of these critics. Nature Publishing Group actively integrates its interests with those of companies invested in agricultural and other biotechnology, such as Novartis, AstraZeneca and other 'sponsorship clients', soliciting them to "promote their corporate image by aligning their brand with the highly respected Nature brand" (see http://npg.nature.com). These partnerships seem to us to challenge Nature's ability to provide a neutral forum for scientific debates on agricultural biotechnology.

Nature's editorial note disavowing Quist and Chapela's work in the same issue as the technical exchanges1-3 was unorthodox and unnecessary. The usual scientific process of contestation should have been permitted to proceed, using Quist and Chapela's claims and data alone to repeat, verify or refute their findings. Because of its potential effect on regulatory policy, publication of the technical exchanges and Nature's editorial note immediately before the UNEP Convention on Biological Diversity meeting and discussions of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety  (where Nature's editorial note was mentioned) further undermines the journal's stance as uncompromised by commercial interests.

In such an environment, it is difficult to imagine fair consideration being given to work that challenges commercially vested interests and the assumptions of reductionist molecular biology. Quist and Chapela's paper obviously represents such a challenge. That fact - not the quality of their work - together with the politics of university-industry relations, remains central to their paper's troubled reception.

The agricultural biotechnology industry undermines its own credibility by not aggressively evaluating the health and environmental implications of its products. The public will remain sceptical until it does so.

We call on scientists, Nature and other scientific journals to re-examine their commitment to agricultural biotechnology as well as their own conflicts of interest, and to actively encourage a balanced, critical evaluation of the ecological and health effects of the flow of transgenes into the environment.

For further analysis, see
http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~kenw/maize/compromised.htm.

Kenneth Worthy
Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, 135 Giannini Hall, Berkeley, California 94720-3312, USA  kworthy@nature.berkeley.edu

Richard C. Strohman
Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, University of California, Berkeley, 229 Stanley Hall, Berkeley, California 94720-3206, USA

Paul R. Billings
GeneSage, Inc., 589 Howard Street, San Francisco, California 94105, USA

Statement of competing financial interests: the authors are recipients of educational grants from and/or employees of the University of California, Berkeley, which could lose financially from publication of this correspondence as a result of its strategic alliance with TMRI/Syngenta.
 
References

1. Metz, M. & Fütterer, J. Nature 416, 600-601 (2002).
2. Kaplinsky, N. et al. Nature 416, 601 (2002).
3. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 416, 602 (2002).
4. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 414, 541-543 (200

***

NGIN:

The editor of Nature is still ducking and diving over his "retraction" (the word he himself uses in his letter on this issue to The Guardian - http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/deceit6.html) of Chapela and Quist's paper on Mexican maize contamination.

His claim that the paper's "principal conclusion is shown to be not necessarily false but unsustainable on the basis of the reported evidence" is directly contrary to the evidence available as to the majority view of the peer reviewers who looked at this issue and concluded that the paper's principal conclusion had not even been challenged.

As the BBC's Newsnight programme showed:

(Newsnight) ...He retracted the whole paper although the main conclusion, which Nature itself press released as "scientists have detected transgenic DNA in wild maize" was unchallenged.

(Campbell) in terms of what we published as far as I'm aware the first part of the paper hasn't been disputed...

(Newsnight) But you still felt it necessary to retract?

(Campbell) Uh hum yes...

(Newsnight) can you tell me why exactly....

(Campbell) yes because as I said the paper as a whole shouldn't have been published -

(Newsnight) Chapela's supporters thought Campbell was responding to pressure from industry-funded scientists, but he denies this. He sent the paper to three referees before deciding whether to retract. Newsnight has obtained their confidential comments. Only ONE thought the paper should be retracted - though all said there were flaws in its second part.

The second referee said "none of the critics seriously dispute the main conclusion" and the third said "none of the comments has successfully disproven their main result that transgenic corn is growing in Mexico and crossing with local varieties". Yet Campbell published the retraction -citing only the FIRST referee.
http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/080602d.htm

The editor's action remains incomprehensible outside of the industry orchestrated campaign of pressure to force a retraction.
http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/deceit_index.html

As Worthy et al note below, "By taking sides in such an unambiguous manner, Nature risks losing its impartial and professional status. This is particularly troubling when articles are related to economic or political interests. Nature asks its contributors to provide information regarding conflicts of interest, but does Nature hold itself to the same standards?"

Metz et al's claims below to be free of any undue influence relating to the Berkeley Syngenta deal and the controversy over it has already been exposed as laughable by the investigation into these issues by The New Scientist amongst others.
http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/130602a.htm

***

CONFLICTS AROUND A STUDY OF MEXICAN CROPS
June 27, 2002
Nature 417, 897 (2002) [via Agent]

Andrew V. Suarez, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, Division of Insect Biology, University of California, 201 Wellman Hall, Berkeley, California 94720-3112, USA
Mike Benard, Neil D. Tsutsui Department of Evolution and Ecology, Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, USA
Todd A. Blackledge Department of Entomology, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA
Kirsten Copren, Eli M. Sarnat, Alex L. Wild Department of Entomology, University of California, Davis, USA
Wayne M. Getz, Philip T. Starks, Kipling Will, Per J. Palsbøll, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, USA
Mark E. Hauber Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, USA
Craig Moritz Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, USA
Adam D. Richman Department of Plant Science and Plant Pathology, Montana State University, USA

Scientific endeavour is based on formation and testing of hypotheses. Very few hypotheses persist unmodified after they are first proposed; most are tested, modified and re-tested, and often refuted. Many journals include a forum for scientists to make technical comments on recent publications and for the original authors to respond, so that readers can evaluate the merit of reported scientific findings.

The cornerstones of a rigorous publication process are the subject editor, who is familiar with the research area of a submitted manuscript, and the independent outside reviewers whose recommendations are solicited by the subject editor. This thorough evaluation ensures, to some extent, the journal's impartiality in publication decisions.

Despite this rigorous process, however, Nature recently published a technical exchange1-3 accompanied by an editorial note stating: "Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper".

The authors state that in their view this statement reflects poorly on Nature's editorial policy and review process, and sets a dangerous precedent. Why has Nature refrained from releasing similar editorial retractions of earlier publications later found to be incorrect or open to alternative interpretations? What sets this particular publication apart?

If the interpretation of the results proposed by the authors of the original paper4 was judged by Nature to be sufficiently erroneous to warrant this editorial statement, why did Nature publish the report in the first place?

By taking sides in such an unambiguous manner, Nature risks losing its impartial and professional status. This is particularly troubling when articles are related to economic or political interests. Nature asks its contributors to provide information regarding conflicts of interest, but does Nature hold itself to the same standards?

References
1.Metz, M. & Fütterer, J. Nature 416, 600-601 (2002).
2. Kaplinsky, N. et al. Nature 416, 601 (2002).
3. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 416, 602 (2002).
4. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 414, 541-543 (2001)

The editor of Nature comments that it is highly unusual for Nature to publish a paper whose principal conclusion is shown to be not necessarily false but unsustainable on the basis of the reported evidence. The paper was not formally retracted by its authors or by Nature. In the circumstances, Nature considered it appropriate for the record to make clear to readers its revised view of its original decision to publish.

The independence of our editorial decision-making from partisan anti- or pro-technology agendas and from commercial interests is paramount in our role as a journal.

Editor, Nature
References
1. Metz, M. & Fütterer, J. Nature 416, 600-601 (2002).
2. Kaplinsky, N. et al. Nature 416, 601 (2002).
3. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 416, 602 (2002).
4. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 414, 541-543 (2001).

Matthew Metz, Department of Microbiology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA, and Johannes Fütterer, Institute of Plant Sciences, ETH, CH-8092 Zürich, Switzerland, reply that the accusations of Worthy et al. about their Brief Communication1 do not relate to the scientific data of Quist and Chapela4. Metz and Fütterer say their concern was exclusively over the quality of the scientific data and conclusions, which would have been the same whatever the motivation of the criticism.

Bad science can only undermine our understanding of nature, and the making of constructive public policy. The statement that "commercially vested interests" (that is, ties to Syngenta/ Novartis) are "central to" criticisms of the data in ref. 4 is as useless in addressing the scientific issues as would be an accusation that these data were tainted by a grudge between Chapela and his former employer (the same company). Metz and Fütterer state that although their connections to industry are irrelevant to the scientific issues, and hence do not warrant disclosure, we feel compelled to dispel the mischaracterization of Worthy et al.. One of us (M. M.) had TMRI funding for only one-sixth of his study at UC Berkeley, and the other's (J. F.) alleged link to TMRI relies entirely on someone else's former Berkeley association. Both Metz and Fütterer currently have research funding exclusively from the public sector.

We are not unlike many scientists in that we have shared research and funding with industry at some point. In stating that we have "compromised positions", Worthy et al. wrongly imply that private-sector funding strips us of integrity and legitimacy in the arena of scientific discourse. Far from promoting "scientific freedom and balance", this presumption tars any scientist who can be suggested to have worked with the private sector. The only threat to academic freedom that seems to have materialized from the Berkeley/TMRI collaboration is this attitude towards scientists who might have industry links.

References
1. Metz, M. & Fütterer, J. Nature 416, 600-601 (2002).
2. Kaplinsky, N. et al. Nature 416, 601 (2002).
3. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 416, 602 (2002).
4. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 414, 541-543 (2001).

Nick Kaplinsky of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA, replies that he, on behalf of the authors of the Brief Communication2, state unequivocally that funding from TMRI has absolutely nothing to do with their criticisms. Worthy and co-authors are incorrect. Two of Kaplinsky's co-authors of ref. 2 (Hake and Hay) do not receive any industry funding. Funding information for the Freeling lab (Braun, Freeling, Lisch and N. K.) is transparent and public (see http://plantbio.berkeley.edu/~freeling/labweb/fund.html); less than a quarter of it is from industry.

As Worthy et al. state, Chapela and Quist are "leading critics" of the TMRI agreement. Chapela is a board member of PANNA
(http://www.panna.org/panna/about/board.html#ihc), an advocacy group opposing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It is a double standard to accuse us, but not Quist and Chapela, of a conflict of interest.

ngin bulletin archive

INDEX