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ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

The Godfather
some reflections on the industrial alignment of UK bio-science

In many ways Derek Burke, former Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, could be said to be the father, or perhaps even the Godfather, of British biotech. Very few individuals can be said to have had such a profound degree of influence over its development.

Certainly nobody reading his article attacking Prince Charles (June, 1999) could be left in any doubt about his passionate advocacy of GM foods, epitomised by his use of the word “criminal” for anyone turning their back on the greater quantities of food supposedly made available by GM crops (a point rendered ironic by the recent University of Wisconsin research showing  GM soya yields from the 1998 US harvest  were lower than for non-modified varieties in over 80% of cases in  trials across nine US states  -  the states concerned accounting for 68% of last year's US soya production - for more on this)..

The apparent potential of biotechnology has long been a theme close to Derek Burke's heart.  Prof Burke was a key participant, for example, in the UK Government's “Technology Foresight” exercise that examined how science could be made to contribute most fully to the UK's economic competitiveness. Foresight identified "building businesses from biology and genetics" as a generic priority for UK science, engineering and technology.

Prof Burke was also appointed to a special follow-on group that had the task of making sure that the Foresight proposals were fully incorporated into the Corporate Plan of the UK's public funding body for the bio-sciences, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). As a result, the BBSRC developed a strategy for integrating scientific opportunity with the needs of industrial and other users (so-called "market pull"). The result has been that the livelihoods, career development and research direction of UK scientists in this field have been made far more dependent than previously on corporate investment and commercial relevance.

This philosophy is also clearly reflected in the fact that the current chairman of this public funding body has for several years been Peter Doyle, until recently the Executive Director of the UK's leading biotechnology company, Zeneca (now AstraZeneca), as well as in the large number of industry linked figures on the BBSRC's various boards (for more on this click here). By marked contrast, only one person from a public interest group, the Country Landowners Association (CLA), is represented on any of the BBSRC’s various committees. [see notes on these at end] Not surprisingly, bio-scientists applying for public funds are increasingly required to justify their research in terms of its potential for "wealth creation" rather than for its furthering scientific understanding.

In 1998 a very telling study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine (January 8, 1998 -- Vol. 338, No. 2, Stelfox et al, Conflict of Interest in the Debate over Calcium-Channel Antagonists). The study, the first of its kind on conflicts of interest, showed that scientists’ judgements on a controversial issue would appear to be affected by their relationship to relevant commercial interests and that the relationship need not be a direct one:

"Supportive authors were also more likely than neutral or critical authors to have financial relationships with any pharmaceutical manufacturer, irrespective of the product (100 percent, vs. 67 percent and 43 percent, respectively; P<0.001)." [our emphasis - for more details of the study click here]

The implications in relation to the GE debate are very disturbing given the culture of commercialisation that the bio-sciencs now inhabit. Stelfox et al’s findings confirm the common sense judgement that in allowing the industrial alignment of public science we risk the industrial alignment of independent scientific opinion. In other words an “independent” scientist should not necessarily be regarded as a source of impartial advice.

Prof Burke, then, has been a key contributor to the project to establish the commercial imperative at the heart of UK public science, particularly in areas relevant to biotechnology. Lord Sainsbury (former food industrialist and biotech entrepreneur, and GE enthusiast) sitting as current UK Science Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry could in many ways be said to be an indirect tribute to the success of this project to industrially align the UK's independent science base.

Prof Burke's influence on the development of British biotech has also been more direct. He was a member of the Royal Society's influential working group on GM foods which issued a report last year ('Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use') which is said to have reassured Ministers on this issue.  He is in addition a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics group that produced the recent pro-GE report ('Genetically modified crops: the social and ethical issues')

Curiously, Prof Burke has omitted to mention his own membership of this group both in his article attacking Prince Charles and in a TV interview, given to the BBC on the day of publication of the Prince Charles article, in which Professor Burke also referred to this "independent report" as contradicting Prince Charles's opinions.

Professor Burke was also, of course, the Chair of the key UK regulatory committee on GM foods (namely, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes - ACNFP) for over a decade during which time the first GM foods were approved for the UK. The logic of having a passionate advocate of a particular technology as head of a regulatory body charged with overseeing the question of its public health implications is an interesting one. After all, passionate advocacy seems somewhat incompatible with calm reflection, proper and wide-ranging review, and due caution. Indeed such scientific certainty and commitment are surely inappropriate when science is simply not able at this point to provide definitive answers about the safety of GMOs.

Professor Burke has also been active in trying to influence the Church of England to support GM crops and agriculture and to allow GM trials on their land - see below

Although Prof Burke may have no direct  financial interests in any of the food biotech corporations, it is also true that one would not expect Professor Burke to be unsympathetic to bioscience business interests, having himself worked for a biotech company in North America in the 1980's (Allelix Inc, based in Toronto, which applies gene-based approaches to the production of pharmaceuticals; currently he was a director of Genome Research, Ltd, a firm described as "intricately linked with the future of genetic technology" - OBSERVER Sunday November 21 - see below). Nor is Derek Burke's strong support for the idea of powerful economic benefits from the acceptance of genetic engineering irrelevant. Prof Burke has also been, it has to be said, a leading member of institutions which have stood to gain directly from the public acceptance of GM foods.

During much of his time as head of ACNFP, Prof Burke was also Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UEA) and  a member of the Governing Council of the John Innes Centre (JIC), the UK's leading institute for plant biotechnology. Both institutions have benefited from the growth in investment in this area of research. The UK biotechnology company Zeneca alone has recently committed itself to investing over 50 million pounds of commercial sponsorship in the JIC. The JIC has also in recent years attracted increasing amounts of public money through its main sponsor,  the BBSRC.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Director of the JIC is on record as saying that any slow down or halt on GM food crops would be a very serious financial blow to the JIC and that it would also have financial implications for UEA.

His comments followed the concern over Professor Pusztai's research findings. Professor Burke has been one of Professor Pusztai's sternest and most vociferous critics. Stern criticism of Pusztai has also come from all the various bodies that Professor Burke has been strongly associated with. Indeed, the ACNFP, the Royal Society, and the Nuffield panel (via an appendix to their report), all recently issued critiques of Pusztai's work within a matter of days of each other. All the critiques were very similar and all seemed to reflect a very limited knowledge of his methodology. These attacks came very hard on the heels of the Christian Aid and British Medical Association reports which were both considered unhelpful from the Government's point of view. They also coincided with the leaking of a letter from the Cabinet office about a Government coordinated fight back on the GM issue which involved the use of “independent” scientists in the media to “flag” pro-GM messages for the Government.

The chair of the Royal Society group that set the remit for the peer review of Professor Pusztai's work was Professor Noreen Murray. Professor Murray had earlier sat with Burke on the RS's working group on 'Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use'. In other words, her attitudes and reliability on the GE issue would already have been known to the RS and she had already publicly committed herself to a pro-GE report. Another member of this “Pusztai” group, and of the earlier RS group that included Burke, was Dr Rebecca Bowden. An article in The Guardian recently stated:

“According to a source the Royal Society science policy division is being run as what appears to be a rebuttal unit. The senior manager of the division is Rebecca Bowden, who coordinated the highly critical peer review of Dr Pusztai's work. She joined the society in 1998, from the government biotechnology unit at the department of the environment, which controls the release of genetically modified organisms.

The rebuttal unit is said by the source to operate a database of like-minded Royal Society fellows who are updated by e-mail on a daily basis about GM issues. The aim of the unit, according to the source, is to mould scientific and public opinion with a pro-biotech line.” [The Guardian, November 1st 1999, Pro-GM scientist "threatened editor", to read the whole article click here]

Yet another member of the RS peer-review group was Professor Brian Heap, who had also worked with Murray, Bowden and Burke on the earlier report. Heap was also a member with Burke of the Nuffield group which produced an appendix on Pusztai which has rightly been criticised as grossly unfair .

Recently, Derek Burke was interviewed as part of a BBC “Panorama” programme and was asked why no known scientific sceptics on GE had ever been appointed to the novel foods committee he formerly chaired - ACNFP. Burke's answer was that there would have been no point as a successful dialogue with such scientists is not possible. Such a principle would appear to have been applied to every other committee pertaining to GE that Burke has ever been associated with.

Professor Burke's remarks (in the Prince Charles piece) about his right to “join the debate” in the light of Prince Charles's intervention, should not, mislead anyone into thinking that he has ever been shy of authoring press articles or making TV appearances on this issue. He has always been a vigorous public participant in the debate on GMOs. Whether Professor Burke regards himself as one of the “fathers” of British biotech, it's hard to say, but his fervour might easily suggest that he regards the introduction of GM foods into the UK as his “baby” and all things considered, he is probably quite right to do so.

Finally, a quote from Miguel A. Altieri, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, Division of Insect Biology,University of California:

"The problem is that research at public institutions increasingly reflects the interests of private funders at the expense of public good research, such as biological control, organic production systems and general agroecological techniques (Busch et al., 1990).  Civil  society must demand a response of who the university and other public organizations are to serve and request more research on  alternatives to biotechnology."

Notes on BBSRC and the culture of commercialisation:

BBSRC funding goes into 98 UK research establishments and universities  Institutes sponsored by the BBSRC include
John Innes Centre (JIC) [UK’s leading plant biotech institute]
Roslin Institute [cloning technology: Dolly the sheep]
Institute of Food Research (IFR) [Prof Mike Gale, Director of the JIC has said IFR would suffer badly from a moratorium on GM - Eastern Daily Press 15/2/99]
Institute of Arable Crops Research (IACR) [involved in GM research]

Boards and Committees

Council Members - out of 15, 5 including the chairman are directly industry linked, industrial ‘interests’ of other members have not as yet been disclosed. The 5 include:

Peter Doyle, Chairman BBSRC, until recently Chief Exec of Zeneca
Guy Walker CBE, Unilever and President of Food and Drink Federation
Peter Schroeder, previously Director of Research and Development, Nestle  [now the Director of the Inst. of Food Research]

In addition, BBSRC committee members also include (other) representatives of such firms as:

AgrEvo UK Ltd
Unilever Research
Advanced Technologies (Cambridge) Ltd
Rhone-Poulenc Ltd
Dyfed Seed
Consultant in Agrochemicals and Pharmaceuticals
Powis Hughes Associates
Weetabix Ltd
Cerebrus Ltd
Merck Sharpe & Dohme
SmithKline Beecham

On the Strategy Board out of 16 members, 6 are directly industry linked. For more on the BBSRC click here

Notes on the ground breaking study done on the impact of conflicts of interest on scientific judgements:

The New England Journal of Medicine -- January 8, 1998 -- Vol. 338, No.2

Conflict of Interest in the Debate over Calcium-Channel Antagonists
Henry Thomas Stelfox, Grace Chua, Keith O'Rourke, Allan S. Detsky

Abstract available at
or via contents page at

The study's conclusion is that a strong association is demonstrated between authors' published positions on product safety (in this case calcium-channel
antagonists) and their financial relationships with the industry.

from The OBSERVER (London) Sunday November 21, 1999
Church Commissioners drawn into GM crop dispute
by Antony Barnett and Oliver Morgan

... Professor Derek Burke, an influential member of the Church's scientific and medicines advisory committee, is a passionate supporter of genetically modified food and a former chairman of the Government's advisory committee on new foods. Burke recently published a 10-point rebuttal of the Prince of Wales's criticism of GM food and was until last year a director of Genome Research - the firm intricately linked with the future of genetic technology.

Burke said: 'I have never hidden my views on this issue and believe that the Church should allow trials to be conducted on its land.'