ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
4 December 2002


In 1999 it was revealed by Dr Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, that a senior Fellow of the Royal Society had threatened him with the loss of his job if he went ahead and published Dr Pusztai's research, even though that research had been approved by a majority of its peer reviewers. (item 2)

The scientist in question? Sir Peter Lachmann who hear sounds off about the importance of "scientific trials". (item 1)

Lachmann also doesn't want people to think that the BMA in its concerns about GM crops relects wider medical opinion. As they represent 80% or more of doctors, and there will undoubtedly be doctors who they do not represent who support their stance, how much wider does he want it to go?

And who exactly does Sir Peter Lachmann represent? According to the Guardian, Lachmann's "extensive CV includes a recent consultancy to Geron Biomed, which markets the animal cloning technology behind Dolly the sheep, and a non-executive directorship for the biotech company Adprotech. Prof Lachmann is also on the scientific advisory board of the pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham, which invests heavily in biotechnology." (item 2) The Royal Society has received millions, via  its fundraising campaign, from major corporations, including those (eg Rhône Poulenc and Glaxo-Welcome) with major biotechnology interests (The Royal Society Annual Review 1998-99, p.26 - see also item 3).

1. Scientific trials vital for GM crops
2. Pro-GM scientist "threatened editor"


1. Scientific trials vital for GM crops

>From Professor Sir Peter Lachmann and others
Letters, The Times, December 04, 2002

Sir, The Government‚s plans for a scientific review of the issues surrounding GM crops are a welcome opportunity to emphasise the importance of scientific trials and evidence in policymaking. In that light, we are concerned that the recent call from the British Medical Association for the Scottish Executive to halt GM field trials should not be taken to reflect wider medical opinion.

Why does the BMA, with no expertise in plant science, single out GM crops, rather than any other novel crops? There is no merit in advocating inaction for its own sake. Such a precautionary approach, if allowed to take hold in policy, would have a deadening effect on progress.

Scientific and medical developments in areas from gene therapy to immunology will not be possible if trials and applications can be curtailed on the basis of concerns without scientific foundation.

Yours truly,
(President, Academy of Medical Sciences, 1998-2002),
(Professor of Experimental Gastroenterology, University of Dundee),
(Hotung Chair of Molecular Immunology, St George‚s Hospital Medical School)
(Visiting Professor of Biology, University College London),

Academy of Medical Sciences,
10 Carlton House Terrace,
London SW1Y 5AH.
November 29.


2. Pro-GM scientist "threatened editor"

Laurie Flynn and
Michael Sean Gillard
The Guardian, November 1st 1999 (see also letters to the Guardian below)

The editor of one of Britain's leading medical journals, the Lancet, says he was threatened by a senior member of the Royal Society, the voice of the British science establishment, that his job would be at risk if he published controversial research questioning the safety of genetically modified foods.

Richard Horton declined to name the man who telephoned him. But the Guardian has identified him as Peter Lachmann, the former vice-president and biological secretary of the Royal Society and president of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

The Guardian has been told that an influential group within the Royal Society has set up what appears to be a "rebuttal unit" to push a pro-biotech line and counter opposing scientists and environmental groups.

Dr Horton said he was called at his office in central London on the morning of Wednesday October 13, two days before the Lancet published a research paper by Arpad Pusztai, the scientist at the centre of the GM controversy

Dr Horton, editor of the Lancet since 1995, said the phone call began in a "very aggressive manner". He said he was called "immoral" and accused of publishing Dr Pusztai's paper which he "knew to be untrue"

Towards the end of the call Dr Horton said the caller told him that if he published the Pusztai paper it would "have implications for his personal position" as editor. The Lancet is owned by Reed Elsevier, one of Europe's largest scientific publishing houses.

At the end of the call Dr Horton, 37, said he immediately informed his colleagues and named the caller.

Prof Lachmann, a professor of immunology at Cambridge and a Royal Society fellow for 17 years, confirmed that he rang Dr Horton on October 13 to discuss his "error of judgment" in deciding to publish the paper.

He said he called Dr Horton after he had been e-mailed, "probably by the Royal Society', a proof of the paper.

However, Prof Lachmann, 67, "categorically denies" making any threat to Dr Horton during the call. "This is absolute rubbish, it would never have crossed my mind," he said. "I didn't accuse him of being immoral. I said there were moral difficulties about publishing bad science. I think I probably suggested to him that he knew the science was very bad. They [the Lancet] knew it was bad science, whether you call that untrue or not, I don't think I used the word untrue."

Prof Lachmann's call to Dr Horton was preceded by a series of controversial interventions by the society on the Pusztai affair. While vice-president of the society, Prof Lachmann chaired a special working group on GM plants for food use last year which endorsed their "potential for real benefits" but recognised the need for further research and monitoring. The Royal Society says that its report is now being used as a "source document" by the government.

The Lachmann group report was published in September l998, a month after Dr Pusztai first expressed his concerns on British TV about their safety questioning government regulatory procedures. Dr Pusztai's employer, the Rowett Institute, had authorised the interview, but it seized his data, forced him to retire and banned him from speaking out.

In February, Prof Lachmann was one of the 19 Royal Society fellows who attacked Dr Pusztai's work in an open letter. He and other key Royal Society fellows have since been at the forefront of defending GM technology and extolling its ability to solve world hunger and provide safer food and medicines.

His extensive CV includes a recent consultancy to Geron Biomed, which markets the animal cloning technology behind Dolly the sheep, and a non-executive directorship for the biotech company Adprotech. Prof Lachmann is also on the scientific advisory board of the pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham, which invests heavily in biotechnology. He denies any conflict of interest, arguing that his expertise in the area qualifies him to comment.

The first intervention came in March when the Royal Society, which does not normally conduct peer reviews, took the unusual decision to scrutinise Dr Pusztai's work.

A group of reviewers, whom the society refuses to name, concluded after examining incomplete data that it appeared to be "flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis"

Dr Horton wrote a Lancet editorial that month accusing the Royal Society of "breathtaking impertinence" Prof Lachmann, who was not involved in this peer review, nevertheless countered with a letter attacking the journal's position as "absurd." Dr Horton published the letter in July. At the same time, the Lancet was considering whether to peer review and publish the now famous paper by Dr Pusztai and Stanley Ewen on the effect on the gut of rats fed GM potatoes.

Dr Horton was also considering publishing a second research paper by another team of scientists. They had looked at the same GM protein used in Dr Pusztai's potatoes and found that it binds to human white blood cells. The health implications must be further researched before the GM protein is allowed into the food chain, the paper recommended.

Dr Horton said he never expected what would follow from his decision to promote scientific debate by publishing both papers. He said there was intense pressure on the Lancet from all quarters, including the Royal Society, to suppress publication. The campaign, he said, was "worthy of Peter Mandelson."

The Guardian has learned that these interventions are taking place in an unusual context. 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. Dr Bowden confirmed that her main role is to coordinate biotech policy for the society, reporting to the president, Sir Aaron Klug. However, she and Sir Aaron denied it was a spin doctoring operation.

In May a leaked government memo outlined how its office of science and technology was compiling a list of eminent scientists who were on message to rebut criticism and under write the government's unequivocal pro-biotech line.

The Guardian has established that the Royal Society was involved in trying to prevent publication of the Pusztai paper. This intervention intensified when it learnt the paper had been peer reviewed for the Lancet by six scientists, Dr Horton told the Guardian.

The only reviewer arguing against publication was John Pickett of the government funded Institute of Arable Crops Research.

Prof Pickett said that when he realised that Dr Pusztai's paper had been accepted for publication, he took his concerns to the Royal Society's biological secretary who told him the society was already preparing a press release.

Five days before the Lancet published, an article appeared in a national newspaper in which Prof Pickett broke the protocols of peer review and publicly attacked the Lancet for agreeing to publish the Pusztai paper. Two days after the spoiler article appeared, Prof Lachmann made his phone call to the editor of the Lancet.

Dr Horton said the society had acted like a star chamber throughout the Pusztai affair. "The Royal Society has absolutely no remit to conduct that sort of inquiry."

Sir Aaron said he knew nothing about the phone call to Dr Horton and whoever spoke to the Lancet editor was not doing so on the society's behalf. However, he confirmed that the society had a proof of the Pusztai paper before the Lancet published it.
Letters to the Guardian

The Guardian, Tuesday November 2nd: The editor and the FRS

Congratulations to Lancet editor Richard Horton on letting some fresh air into the Pusztai/Royal Society conflict (Pro-GM food scientist "threatened editor", November 1). This is entirely welcome regardless of the merits of the Pusztai claims.

In their open letter last February criticising Pusztai's research the 17 biology fellows of the Royal Society emphasised the need for "independent" scientists. Many observers were fascinated by the use of the term independent˜what exactly did it mean? It is after all no secret that many top biologists own, have shares in or are wellpaid consultants to biotechnology companies. Were we to assume some Nolan-like definition of independence such that the signatories had no commercial interests? Now we learn that, at least in the case of one signatory, Professor Lachmann, Nolan's concept does not prevail.

In this situation it would be a public service if the Guardian would set out any similar commercial interests of the other signatories.

Should all too many signatories have concealed conflicts of interest while claiming "independence," then the Royal Society had need take urgent advice from Lord Nolan on how to clean up its act.

Professor Hilary Rose, City University, London, <>
Not meddling in politics  was a principle of the Royal Society for 300 years. Its  PhilosophicalTransactions carried an advertisement in every issue saying "It is an established rule of the Royal  Society. . . never to give their opinion, as a Body, upon any subject." By the 1960s the advertisement had been quietly dropped and Patrick Blackett, as president, was boasting of the fellowship's ability "to voice a collective view on matters of urgent national interest"

Fellows should now consider what this change in policy contributed to the shocking politicization of science in our time.

NigelCalder, Crawley, West Sussex



The Ecologist, Vol 30, No.5 (July - August 2000), p56.

For Britain's scientific institutions, the last 12 months have been an annus horribilis. Aided by an increase in media scrutiny, the public has begun to see scientists in a new and often uglier light. The main focus of discontent has been biotechnology, which has seen public trust in a host of 'experts' plummet to a new low.

When I recently penned a roundup of the year's tortuous events for my regular column in the journal Science and Public Affairs, however, it was vetoed. Much of the magazine's funding comes from the Royal Society, the most powerful scientific academy outside the US.

The editor said he had withdrawn my column because Fellows of the Society (FRS) 'wouldn't like if. He had already got into trouble with the Society last year for publishing an article by Peter Melchett attacking the scientific competence of the government's GM trials. But the disappearance of my obscure little column is just the latest in a long series of arms-length censorships by a Society that also publishes many of the most prestigious journals in science.

Outraged by what they saw as media 'misrepresentation' of the experiments of Arpad Pusztai, the Royal Society established a 'rebuttal unit' in 1999 to ensure that journalists heard the wisdom of its elders more easily. Almost immediately, however, its activities seemed to overstep the mark when it obtained Lancet proofs of Pusztai's paper and one Fellow called the journal's editor.

When he was telephoned two days before the article was published, Lancet editor Richard Horton says he was warned that his job would be at risk if publication of Pusztai's work went ahead. The Fellow denies this. Whatever was really said, the Society does not deny the establishment of a unit that emails a group of its Fellows with information that appears to attempt the moulding of scientific and public opinion along an uncritical pro-GM line.

Set up as a product of royal patronage, the Society's funds have traditionally come, with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, from the public purse. More recently it has begun to receive substantial funds from transnational biotechnology corporations, such as Rhone Poulenc and Glaxo Wellcome. Honouring such generous donors by making them part of its 'President's Circle', the Society bizarrely justifies such donations by saying that it will ensure it can 'formulate balanced judgements about the use of science to solve national, social, economic and industrial problems... independent of vested interests'.

Until the 1960s, the Philosophical Transactions of the Society carried an advertisement in every issue claiming: It is an established rule of the Royal Society.., never to give their opinion, as a Body, upon any subject'.

In recent years these words have been quietly dropped, and now it seems that British citizens are paying taxes to fund an organisation that actively promotes the interests of multinational biotech corporations, under the guise of independent science.

From the portrayal of bioscientists by the media, the public is given the impression that critics of GM constitute a tiny minority among the research community. But, talking to those working on the technology in public and university labs, I have found a far more complex picture. In private, many scientists are sceptical of the benefits of GM but feel they cannot speak out for fear  of  not  having  their contracts renewed. You don't have to believe in a conspiracy theory of laboratory censorship to understand  their  worries.

Government funding agency guidelines ban those scientists it employs from becoming 'involved in political controversy on biotechnology or the  biological sciences'. Yet to uncritically support GM crops is not, apparently, considered to be in breach of this code.

The Royal Society is just one of the most prominent examples of how politiical pressure from government is compromising genuine genetic science. Recent research by the UK's Institute of Professionals, Mangers and Civil Servants showed that one in three government-funded laboratories has been asked to modify their conclusions or advice to: suit the customer's preferred outcome (17 per cent); obtain further contracts (10 per cent); or prevent publication (3 per cent).

But it is possible to make science more accountable. The United States, for example, has a tradition of transparency and freedomof information in public life to which many of its scientists actively subscribe. With a membership of 50,000, the US Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) acts as a constant check on the activities of its national academies and government laboratories. The UK meanwhile risks falling into an intellectual timewarp in which scientists become mere puzzle-solvers whose compliance with the interests of their hybrid scientist-politician masters is ensured by their insecure employment.   If the British government wants to make a start, it should launch a review into the functioning and accountability of the Royal Society. If it does not. Sir Robert May should institute such an inquiry if, as expected, he becomes its president. And scientists themselves need to take initiatives. Britain needs a body like the UCS to halt the slide in scientists' integrity, which threatens not only their survival but also the wellbeing of their fellow citizens,
Dr Tom Wakeford is an adviser to ActionAid on GM and sustainable agriculture in the Third World.
"Of course, this issue has an economic dimension which is of crucial importance... There is the sniff of the born-again Luddite in the air, and that could be destructive to our future as a trading country"  Lord Bragg, President of the Science Media Centre supported by Lord Sainsbury and which took over the role of the Royal Society's rebuttal unit after the RS became damaged goods in media circles as a result of the revelations above. The Science Media Centre receives funding from Dupont and consistently promotes a pro-GM line.
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