ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
Date:  04 March 2001


The following comment and article can also be found in the Prof Bullsh*t section of the ngin website:

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The Report of the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on the Future of Biotechnology (published Feb 2001) noted with concern the growing  evidence of university researchers’ “unprecedented ties with industry partners” and the “profound impact” this was having on the choice of research topics.[]

In Britain the problem has become so acute that some of Britain’s top research universities have to depend on private funding for up to 80-90% of their total research budget.  In this context leaders of four different trade unions representing scientists and technicians, came together in 2000 to issue a blunt warning that the “dash for commercial cash” threatened the integrity of British science. []

Corporatization also affects public funding.  Britain’s main funding body for the bio-sciences, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), is chaired by the former executive director of the biotechnology corporation Zeneca, while its committees are stuffed with
figures linked to corporate giants like Dupont, Rhone Poulenc, SmithKline Beecham and Zeneca.

In such a culture it is hardly surprising that public funding has become increasingly conditional on greater involvement of the private sector. [OST (2000b) Science and Innovation, White Paper, July, Office of Science and Technology, Department of Trade and Industry]

But unlike their Canadian counterparts, the UK’s Royal Society shows no apparent unease either over the impact of biotechnology nor the increasing commercialization of scientific research - despite compelling evidence that even indirect industry-linked funding can critically distort researchers’ findings and published  opinions.[]

Indeed the UK Royal Society has seemed hell bent on suppressing any expression of concern by either individual scientists or even the media. []

But the fact that conflicts of interest and the corporatization of science are not high on the UK Royal Society’s agenda is hardly surprising.  After all, not only do many of its leading Fellows depend  themselves on corporate funding for their own research activities and successes, but the Society has itself become increasingly dependent on corporate largesse.

Although primarily funded from the public purse, in recent years the Royal Society has received millions, via a 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]

In the following article, Dr Tom Wakeford explores the extraordinary behaviour of a National Academy of Science that for centuries proudly boasted that it never became institutionally involved in national debates and public controversies, but whose current President proclaims: “We have
contributed early and proactively to public debate about genetically modified plants...” [President’s Address, The Royal Society Annual Review 1998-99]
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THE APPLIANCE OF SCIENCE - The Ecologist, Vol 30, No.5 (July - August 2000), p56.

TOM  WAKEFORD  says Britain urgently needs new measures to guarantee the accountability of its scientists

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, Managers 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.


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