ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

2 June 2002


1. Science Media Centre exposed - NGIN
2. Science Media Centre compromises free speech - Education Guardian
3. Lobby group 'led GM thriller critics' - The Observer


1. Science Media Centre exposed

Wondering who this seedy little biotech-industry-supported lobby group the SMC - "Science Media Centre" is who've been caught out orchestrating media attacks on the Guardian and the BBC?

The SMC claims to be "an independent venture working to promote the voices, stories and views of the scientific community to the news media when science is in the headlines."

In reality it's a Lord-Sainsbury-backed project which has such well known GM proponents as Prof Chris Leaver, Prof Sir John Krebs, The Baroness Greenfield and Lord Robert Winston on its board. In short, quite apart from taking money from biotech companies it represents one very narrow part of the science community.

Today's publicity in The Observer is particularly unfortunate for the SMC as the project was originally intended to give greater credibility to the Royal Society's GM rebuttal unit, badly damaged by its antics over Pusztai and particularly over the Lancet's publication of Pusztai and Ewen's paper.

The SMC also evolved directly out of the work of the SIRC-us ­ the self-appointed, and food and drinks industry funded, science and media watchdog that Susan Greenfield advises.
[see: 'How the Royal Institution, the Royal Society, and the director of the Food Standards Agency, got into bed with a bunch of scientists-for-sale in order to tell journalists how to report the GM debate']

The SIRC with Greenfield put together a highly partisan Forum, which included Krebs, that laid down guidelines for journalists and scientists on how they should report science stories in the media. Although not officially part of the SMC, the SIRC-us say that itís something they're "in touch with Susan" over.
You can find out a lot about the SMC from their home page:

Note who they quote in their comments on the just announced debate on GM issues. It's exactly the people you would never want to be part of any exercise involving science communication and open and honest debate (at least not without a health warning!):

*Professor Ian Crute, Director of Institute of Arable Crops Research [IACR has a string of partnerships with biotech companies. The institute allowed Monsanto to misleadingly spin an IACR GM research project two years ahead of peer-reviewed publication.]

*Dr Guy Poppy, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Southampton University [and a paid biotech lobbyist for Cropgen, but journalists aren't told that by the SMC]

*Dr Mark Tester, Senior Lecturer at Cambridge University [has just taken part in SMC's orchestrated attack on the BBC prog ­ see item 3 below]

Professor Vivien Moses, Visiting Professor of Biotechnology at King's College, London, and Chairman of Cropgen [what more can one say!]

Dr Ray Mathias, Spokesman for the John Innes Centre [JIC takes money from Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Aventis etc. and even has a Syngenta laboratory on site. Matthias heads the JIC's notorious 'Science Communication and Education'  unit - see: How schools, the media, government and the public are being misled]

Professor Mike Wilkinson, Plant Sciences, University of Reading [well known GM enthusiast]

Professor Michael Wilson, CEO of Horticulture Research International [formerly John Innes Centre - won NGIN's 'PANTS ON FIRE AWARD' for antics that included making wildly misleading claims to the media -]

Here's the Wilson quote c/o SMC
"It's long overdue that a rational knowledge-based analysis relevant to UK and EU risks and benefits of GM be undertaken. There are plenty of existing data out there, some gathered from other countries who have adopted, deployed and consumed GM crops grown commercially on over 400 million acres since 1996. I think the real issue here may be those who are ideologically or economically opposed to GM or modern agriculture may set arbitary criteria for safety or acceptance that are unreasonable or impossible to attain."

It's come to something when such a partisan group and such propagandist opinions are presented to the media as the "voices... and views of the scientific community".


2. New Stalinism in the Labour lab

The government's new science media centre compromises free speech, says Tom Wakeford
Guardian Unlimited
Friday June 15, 2001

Fresh from victory, Her Majesty's government is busy fashioning a new Whitehall watchdog. Initiated by the Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, it aims to combat what its promoter Lord Melvyn Bragg calls the "unfounded scare stories that are increasingly drowning out responsible reporting and sensible advice." New Labour has begun establishing what will effectively be Britain's first Ministry of Truth of which George Orwell's fictional rulers would be proud.

Senior figures in the Government, Royal Society and Royal Institution have decided that their much-prized Knowledge Economy necessitates the curtailment of free speech. As Bragg warned, "if ignorance stirred to hysteria by sensationalism were to get in the driving seat, thousands of highly skilled and remarkable opportunities for self-fulfilment, wealth creation and knowledge formation would be lost." Advocate of GM crops, Lord Taverne, argues that the media's "sloppiness" on issues of GM was now "undermining the health of our democracy."

Before you can say "freedom of the press", a new Code of Practice has already been endorsed by Lord Wakeham's Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The Code recommends that journalists consult with approved experts, a secret directory of which is to be provided to "registered journalists with bona fide credentials". Among the tasks of the new pseudo-ministry will be the upkeep of this directory. Having been hosted by the Royal Institution it has so far tried to play down its Big Brother overtones by dubbing itself the "Science Media Centre".

The Code has implications for academics, discouraging scientists from disclosing unpublished results, even at professional meetings. This is perhaps the first time since the second world war that the right of free speech of scientists has been threatened. And now it is not only the public to whom they cannot speak without vetting, but even each other.

Until now it has been standard practice for new scientific results to be presented at conferences before they are subjected to peer review and published. A vital means of scientists receiving constructive criticism on how to interpret their results is now officially discouraged.

Curiously for such a supposedly rigorous document, the Code does not explain how "remarkable opportunities for wealth creation" are going to be reliable if no-one apart from "approved experts" are allowed to ask scientists and innovators whether their sums add up.

The new Ministry and its Code would be worrying enough alone, but they are being proposed at a time when scientific and medical researchers are increasingly finding their ability to speak freely under threat. Employed on short-term contracts, they are often encouraged to provide results that suit the purposes of their bosses, or funders, or both.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1999 found that clinical research into cancer drugs is eight times more likely to reach a positive conclusion when funded by drug companies than when publicly funded. A similar recent study conducted by a trade union in the UK showed that one in three scientists employed by a Government quango or newly-privatised research laboratory had been asked to alter their results to suit the needs of the research's sponsor.

Having lost its independence, Britain's scientific establishment can increasingly silence any researcher who questions their interpretation of the truth. Peer pressure can ensure that contracts of employment are not renewed. Even the normally conservative journal Nature laments in an editorial this spring of Britain's "university-industrial complex out of control".

Lysenko was a Soviet scientist who changed the results in his laboratory to fit the ideology of Stalin, who in turn ensured his politically correct institute, and its imitators, became the dominant forces in Russian biology.

The PCC-approved Code could prevent the media from printing inconvenient information, especially if it comes from known trouble-makers such as proponents of alternative medicine or NGOs like Greenpeace.

Lysenkoism is in danger of coming back, but with a capitalist face. And if the great-and-the-good are allowed to attack freedom of information relating to science, how long before they find justification to extend their activities to other areas?

No one denies that the press exaggerates stories of all kinds, not just those relating to science. Campaign groups, just like corporations and governments, sometimes issue statements that are subsequently found to be erroneous. Greenpeace made a mistake about the Brent Spar. In my view, they also over-interpreted the data on 'genetic pollution' from GM bacteria a few years ago. But compare that to oil companies consistently lying about the level of scientific consensus on global warming, Monsanto and Lord Sainsbury pretending they can create genetic "miracle" crops to solve world hunger, or governments covering up evidence about the dangers to humans from mad-cow disease. Without pressure groups we  might still be being misled on all these vital topics.

New Labour's proposed Orwellian monster could easily be converted into a more balanced body that could enhance openness and debate rather than stifling it. All it need do is invite those with a different perspective from their own, including those who are critical of the benefits of GM crops, worried about the safety of the new generation of "clean" waste incinerators or just sceptical of "approved experts" to come and join in its formation. If it refuses to modify its mission, the so-called Science Media Centre could help bring about a new totalitarianism of knowledge. Even though its regime of intellectual repression would have no more likelihood of long term survival than the Soviet block, it could do much harm to us all in the meantime.

EUR Tom Wakeford's new book, Liaisons of Life, is published by John Wiley


3. The GM conspiracy

Lobby group 'led GM thriller critics'
Robin McKie, science editor
Sunday June  2, 2002
The Observer,2763,726475,00.html

A science lobby group, backed by major pharmaceutical and chemical companies, was yesterday accused of orchestrating a secret campaign aimed at discrediting Fields of Gold, a controversial BBC thriller about genetically modified crops.

Ronan Bennett, who wrote the two-part series with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, said that Science Media Centre, which promotes GM companies, had tried to undermine the play's credentials.

He accused SMC - which is funded by companies such as Dupont, Merlin Biosciences, Pfizer, PowderJet and Smith-Nephew - of touting stories aimed at 'having a pop' at the  Guardian and the BBC.

'In orchestrating their unpleasant campaign to denigrate the programme-makers, they are confirming the suspicions of those who have legitimate concerns about how and why the new technologies have been developed,' Bennett told The Observer.

Fields of Gold follows the story of a young photographer, played by Anna Friel, who discovers that a GM-created superbug is killing elderly people and wildlife and ultimately threatens to wreak global havoc.

The programme has been heavily publicised by the BBC for the past two weeks, but was suddenly subjected to a barrage of vociferous criticisms - all sharing suspiciously similar phrases - in the press yesterday. The Times and The Daily Telegraph both accused the writers of deliberately distorting scientific facts in a bid to exaggerate the dangers posed by GM-crops.

In particular, the papers highlighted criticisms by Dr Mark Tester, who had supplied scientific advice to the programme makers, but now accused the writers of making serious factual errors. He said the plot's basic premise - that a gene conferring resistance to antibiotics could easily spread from crops to humans and other animals - was 'ridiculous'.

Lord May, president of the Royal Society, was quoted as describing the programme as a 'ludicrous piece of science fiction' that should be scrapped as an 'error-strewn piece of propaganda'.

The BBC has refused to consider dropping Fields of Gold, particularly in view of the unexpected waves of publicity that it has been given, while the authors have reacted angrily to criticisms in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, especially the latter which attacked Bennett, not only for an anti-GM stance, but for being an 'IRA apologist'.

Yesterday, Bennett said he was dismayed by the 'over-excited' way in which certain sections of the scientific community had responded to the programme.

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