19 March 2003
By Andy Rowell and Jonathan Matthews
The Ecologist, May 2003
The Royal Society is the most respected scientific institution in the UK, explicitly committed to open and unbiased scientific debate. So why is it working so closely with an unlikely alliance of ex-Marxists and corporate lobbyists to twist the public debate on GM?
As details of Britain's official ‘public debate’ on GM were finalised last autumn, Lord May, head of the Royal Society, spoke out about the danger of its being "hijacked by fundamentalist lobby groups" whose views were guided by dogma and ideology. He also warned of "a risk that the debate will be swamped by a well-orchestrated campaign involving those having special interests."
The promotion of unbiased science, untainted by any political or corporate agenda is exactly what one would hope for from such an august body, founded in 1660 and with such illustrious past presidents as Isaac Newton and Humphrey Davey.
For 300 years not meddling in politics was a key principle of the Society. Its Philosophical Transactions carried a notice in every issue stating, "It is an established rule of the Royal Society... never to give their opinion, as a Body, upon any subject." But by the 1960s the notice had quietly been dropped. And by the late 1990's the Society's President was boasting, "We have contributed early and proactively to public debate about genetically modified plants."
Since last year this proactivity has included working with a new group, Sense about Science. Like Lord May, Sense about Science’s Chairman Lord Dick Taverne argues that journalists are far too easily led on issues like GM by those who "have committed themselves to beliefs which have assumed the status of dogma." The media's "sloppiness" on GM, he warns, is actually "undermining the health of our democracy."
Sense about Science has set up a working party to try and solve the problems of scientific peer review and tackle the problem of communicating science to a media that it believes is more interested in headlines than facts.
Unlike the Royal Society which was founded in 1660, Sense about Science was set up in the middle of last year - just in time, as it happens, for the great GM debate. And although it is quoted in the media as something of an authority, it’s not an easy organisation to find out about.
Their web-site cannot currently be found by Internet search engines and not all messages left on the Sense about Science answerphone seem to get returned. "I'm not very good at technology‚" Tracey Brown, Sense about Science’s Director, told us when we finally spoke to her.
The phone number for Sense about Science, it turns out, is the same as that of a charity called Global Futures. Global who? According to the Charity Commission, the official contact person for Global Futures is one Ellen Raphael, who works for a crisis and risk management PR company called Regester Larkin. Ex-Monsanto PR man, Harry Swan, works there too. And so did Tracey Brown, till shortly before becoming Director of Sense About Science.
Regester Larkin has a very focussed brief - it "helps" some of the world's
largest companies deal with, in its own words, "an environment of unprecedented
scepticism, risk aversion and lack of trust… compounded by a 24/7 media,
the internet and sophisticated anti-business and anti-technology activism."
Its client list includes the Bio-Industry Association, Aventis CropScience,
Lilly, Pfizer and Bayer, ie some of the very corporations most likely to
benefit if GM crop commercialisation gets the go-ahead.
Given Global Futures‚ shared telephone number with Sense about Science, and the connection to Regester Larkin, we wanted to find out more about them.
According to the Charity Commission, Global Futures' has two trustees, Phil Mullan and Dr Michael Fitzpatrick. Both were once regular contributors to a magazine called Living Marxism (later LM). Mullan is also the registrant of the Spiked web-site, set up three years ago by Mick Hume, who headed the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) (See box at end). Hume is the ex-editor of Living Marxism and a regular columnist for The Times.
When we asked Brown about Global Futures, she described it as 'a publishing house'. Yet their website lists only one publication - by sociologist Frank Furedi. Furedi, under the alias Frank Richards, was the chief theoretician of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Sense about Science's Director, Tracey Brown, has worked with Furedi for a number of years and with Global Futures since its inception. They have also both worked with the Institute of Ideas (I of I), another organisation connected with Living Marxism and the RCP, and which was established by Claire Fox, LM's co-publisher.
Sense of proportion
The LM connections do not stop there. Another member of the Sense about Science Working Party on peer review is Tony Gilland, also an LM and Spiked contributor as well as the science and society director of the Institute of Ideas. Gilland's currently organising I of I's weekend-long "Genes and Society Festival" in London this April. Held in association with Pfizer, it is set to discuss issues such as cloning, eugenics and GM crops.
His standpoint on GM is clear. In an online debate Spiked ran for the Natural Environment Research Council, Gilland argued that the UK's GM "farm-scale trials are an unnecessary obstacle" to the introduction of a "beneficial and benign" technology. The debate itself was heavily loaded. Of the seven opinions Spiked commissioned, only one was from a GM-critical perspective.
Another member of the Working Party is Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Centre and sister of Claire, LM‚s former co-publisher and now head of the Institute of Ideas. Fiona Fox also contributed several articles to LM and has admitted to being "associated" with one in which the world's disgust at the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis was dismissed as an "emotional overreaction".
The Science Media Centre (SMC), although claiming to be "an independent venture" helping journalists get the facts right on science issues, admits on its web-site that funding comes from BP-Amoco, Dupont, Pfizer and Astra Zeneca, amongst others.
The SMC‚s roots lie in a Forum that drew up a stringent code as to how scientists and the media should report controversial issues in science. Sense about Science‚s Chairman Lord Taverne was among the Forum’s members, as was David Boak of the Royal Society and Living Marxism-stalwart Dr Michael Fitzpatrick.
According to Lord Taverne, even organisations as mainstream as the National Consumer Council base their opposition to GM "on ideology". He considers Greenpeace our equivalent to America's religious right. Yet, ironically, he has aligned himself with members of a network whose ideological extremism is legendary. It takes in not just the denial of genocide in Rwanda, but support for the IRA, opposition to legal restraints on child pornography, the downplaying of Serbian atrocities, and support for human reproductive cloning.
Birds of a feather
Where Sense about Science is to be found so too, it seems, is the Royal Society. The Sense about Science Working Party is chaired by the Royal Society‚s Vice President, Sir Brian Heap. The Society’s Biological Secretary has been assigned to liaise with the Working Party and so too has its Senior Manager for Press and Public Relations. And where does this Working Party meet? The Royal Society.
The commitment of the Royal Society and Sense about Science to ensuring the media get their stories on GM right can be measured against the stories that have emerged in the opening month of the public debate.
The GM story that drew the widest coverage in January was the claim that GM crops could save the skylark. "Insects and farmland birds can flourish," The Independent reported, "in GM fields that under conventional farming would be wildlife deserts." There was even a follow-up story, "Peers welcome GM weeds study", about how the research had been received at a meeting to promote it to members of the House of Lords and MPs.
Sense about Science set up that meeting. Present were scientists from Broom's Barn, who'd undertaken the study, part funded by Monsanto. The Broom's Barn paper was published in a Royal Society journal. The Science Media Centre, headed by Fiona Fox, promoted the research via a press release. Broom's Barn and the Royal Society briefed the science correspondents. The Royal Society's own press release claimed that GM crops could bring back "endangered wildlife and birds such as skylarks and finches".
The press release was "approved by the Royal Society and by Broom's Barn" says the freelance press officer who wrote it, Elaine Calvert, who admits that the bird angle "is a nice one. That is what everybody wants to happen, isn't it".
In February 2002, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), a lobby group set up by Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, BASF, Dow Agrosciences, Dupont and Syngenta had concluded in its inaugural report that if GM could be seen to be beneficial to birds like the skylark, then that would ensure the majority of people would support GM.
But, the truth about the Broom’s Barn research was somewhat different. It had not even looked at birds. "The trial plots were not big enough to look at birds", conceded lead scientist Alan Dewar. "The bird angle isn't conclusive".
"Considering the way in which the Royal Society and the scientific establishment have attacked the quality of the science that questions the safety of GM, it is quite extraordinary that they should promote this piece of research," said Dr Sue Mayer from GeneWatch UK. "The only conclusion I can come to is that they have some other motivation and that they are not evaluating science fairly".
Later on in January there were attempts to undermine the credibility of the British Medical Association's concerns about GM food and crops. The BMA has warned of "possibly irreversible environmental risk" and "as yet unquantified public health implications". It has called for much more research before GMOs are "permitted to be freely cultivated". However, the BBC reported that the BMA had decided to review its policy on GM and issue a new report. In the BBC's online version of the story Sir Peter Lachmann was quoted as saying that the research that the BMA's 1999 report on GM had been based on had been "discredited".
It was Sense about Science that was credited with having persuaded the BMA to review its GM policy. But the BMA quickly put out a press release stating that this claim and others in the BBC's reports were "totally incorrect" and "wrong". The BMA said their review was entirely routine and that there would not necessarily be a further report.
Lachmann, who like Sense about Science featured prominently in the reports, is a controversial figure himself. Following publication of Pusztai's research into GM potatoes by the Lancet, the journal's editor told The Guardian he had earlier been phoned by Lachmann threatening him with the loss of his job if he went ahead with publication. Lachmann has denied this.
Lachmann is both a leading Fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the Sense about Science Working Party on Peer Review.
This is not the first time the BMA’s report has found itself the victim of media manipulation. When it was first published in 1999, it was quickly knocked out of the headlines by a Royal Society report attacking Pusztai's research as "flawed", even though it hadn't then been published. Sir Brian Heap, who is now the Chair of the Sense about Science Working Party on Peer Review, played a key role in organising that report.
Same old tricks
As soon as the current public debate on GM began, the attacks on Pusztai started up again. On the same day as the reports about the BMA’s allegedly flawed report, The Independent ran the headline, "Scientists blame media and fraud for fall in public trust". The article gave the Royal Society's views on why the public no longer trusts experts like themselves. In the article Pusztai's work is categorised as "fraud". Pusztai's peer reviewers, we are told, "refused it for publication, citing numerous flaws in its methods - notably that the rats in the experiment had not been fed GM potatoes, but normal ones spiked with a toxin that GM potatoes might have made."
Almost every word of this is a fabrication. Pusztai's Lancet paper successfully came through a peer review process which was far more stringent than that applying to most published papers. There was no "fraud". Rats were fed GM potatoes. There was no "toxin".
The claims in the article follow a pattern. Last summer, for instance, the Royal Society's Biological Secretary, Patrick Bateson wrote in the journal Science and Public Affairs that the Lancet published Pusztai's research "in the face of objections by its statistically-competent referees".
Bateson is one of those charged with liaising between the Sense about Science Working Party and the ten-member Royal Society working group on peer review, which he heads. According to The Independent, one of the cases that will be informing that work is that of Pusztai.
Lord Taverne of Sense about Science has also been a keen critic of how Pusztai's research is reported, telling his fellow peers he hoped the Press Complaints Commission would "come down heavily on the kind of irresponsible and reckless disregard for fact and evidence which has characterised the reporting of many scientific issues in the past"‚ Taverne gave as an example, "when Dr Pusztai fed harmful lectins inserted in potatoes to rats".
He didn’t. The lectin used is known in its non-GM form to be harmless to rats.
In the context of the UK‚s public debate there is growing disquiet.
A recent Royal Society meeting linked to the public debate drew criticism from several scientists for being little better than propaganda for GM. The Science Media Centre recently had the ac.uk removed from its email address after complaints were upheld that only academic institutions that were not primarily corporate-funded were entitled to make use of it. And in a letter to Tracey Brown last November, the Wellcome Trust sets out why, after careful consideration, it is declining to be part of Sense about Science’s Working Party or to provide any funding. Amongst the series of concerns listed is the fact that, "The proposed make-up of the Working Party is extremely narrow". The Working Party, the lettter says, "runs the risk of being seen as a closed and defensive strategy", and the letter talks of the project being based on "many assumptions" and little "direct evidence".
Not so long ago on Desert Island Discs, Lord May told us, "It is for the public to decide which doors to open and which doors they want to leave closed. But they should be making these decisions on the basis of accurate, balanced information." Take him at his word.
[BOX with GM debate contact details]
Andy Rowell is a freelance journalist and author of "DON'T WORRY IT IS SAFE TO EAT - THE TRUE STORY OF GM, BSE AND FOOT AND MOUTH", in press.
Jonathan Matthews is a writer and researcher on the biotech industry and a founder of GM WATCH www.ngin.org.uk which is developing an online database on biotech PR.
[BOX] REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST PARTY (aka LM, Spiked etc.)
The RCP was born out of ideological in-fighting amongst the extreme left in the 1970s. In the late 1980s, it launched the magazine Living Marxism (later LM).
Part of the RCP's background was a tactic known as ‘entryism’, involving the infiltration of unions or political organisations in order to try and control their direction. In the early 90s it turned its back on seeking mass working class action in favour of a new mission - and hence the links to the GM corporate lobby - the promotion of social change by opposing all restrictions on science, technology and business. To forward its new corporate science-led agenda the RCP began a campaign of infiltration of academic and media circles under the slogan, "Go to the suburbs".
Ever controversial, LM was forced into closure in 2000 after losing a libel case brought by journalists it had accused of fabricating evidence of Serbian atrocities. RCP/LM were also widely regarded as having been behind the anti-environmental TV series, 'Against Nature', which drew the wrath of the Independent Television Commission for having "misled" participants and "distorted" their views via selective editing. The group has also been accused of using the pursuit of "freedom" and "progress" to promote a narrow vision of science and glorify technology, and to defend more or less every environmental and financial corporate excess.
Andy Rowell also presented a talk earlier this week, at the "Who Twists the Helix" conference taking place at the University of Cambridge, looking at who is spinning the pro-GM agenda in the UK, and based on research to be published in PR Watch's First Quarter 2003 issue.
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