ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

How the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, the director of the Food Standards Agency, the Chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, and others, have got into bed with a bunch of media-savvy scientists-for-sale in order to instruct journalists on how to report the GM debate

A Prof Bullsh*t and Jean Debris co-production

- reporting the business of science

"Tell me what company thou keepst, and I'll tell thee what thou art" - Cervantes


A recent leader in the UK's Independent newspaper (September 9, 2000) speaks admiringly of scientists' "increasing media savvy" and "flair for producing headlines". This followed a week or two of stories emerging from the British Association's festival of science and elsewhere, leading to headlines such as: "GM apples could fight tooth decay", "Vaccine in GM fruit could wipe out hepatitis B", and "GM crops 'good for wildlife and yield' ".

This last, penned by Tim Radford, science editor of the Guardian, reported Professor Sir John Beringer's claims in a speech to the British Association that GM herbicide-resistant crops were the way of the future. Although there is good evidence that the existing type of GM herbicide-resistant crops can be bad for both yield and wildlife, there are no caveats in Radford's report.

In these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that a vehemently anti-conservationist "media-watch" organisation, known as the Economically Viable Alternative Greens, recently made this assessment of the Guardian's biotech coverage:

"The Guardian has been adopting a significantly more rational position on biotechnology lately, about which we are greatly pleased."

If the EVAG are correct in their complacent claim that some elements of the British media have backed off of late in their challenge to the science establishment over GMOs, then try and imagine what the GM debate might have been like over the past few years if UK journalists had had to follow a special code requiring them to seek the opinion of approved "expert contacts" as to the credibility of any science-related stories they were planning to report.

Given the overbearing behaviour and dubious tactics that we have seen from the likes of the Royal Society[] and other leading GM proponents [], just how likely is it that major areas of GMO safety would have emerged as a focus of serious concern and scrutiny in the way that they have?

That, of course, is exactly how some people would like to imagine it! And they have been quietly doing their level best to ensure that these are the lines along which this, and other science-related debates, are approached by the media in future.

However, as the character and behaviour of those behind this drive to improve the media shows all too clearly, it is our commercialised science culture, more than the UK media's science coverage, that is in most urgent need of change.

A disgrace to fair and objective journalism

The scene: the House of Lords. Lord Dick Taverne QC is on his feet.

"Vitamin A can be engineered into rice plants. This could save the lives of millions of children who now die from Vitamin A deficiency. I could multiply the examples. But this kind of evidence has been largely ignored, suppressed or distorted by the press, by some of the broadsheets as well as tabloids."

Ignored? Suppressed? This "miracle rice" has been proclaimed from the cover of Time magazine to Clinton at the G8 summit -- despite the limited scientific understanding underpinning the project, not to mention the simpler alternatives already available (unlike the rice which is still in the lab). And these are just the latest helpings in what has become almost a mono-diet of Golden-Rice type hype served up around the world.

According to Taverne, however, it is only media distortion and suppression which has prevented our all being convinced of the multiple benefits of GM foods:

"The "Today" programme is one of the worst offenders. Some of the interviews by Mr John Humphries, who has a personal interest in organic farming, are a disgrace to fair and objective journalism."

Given this preoccupation, it is perhaps not surprising that Taverne has recently been serving as a member of a special Forum which has been laying down a Code of Practice and Guidelines on the Communication of Science and Health issues in the Media.

Career science and journalistic caution

The current draft of the Forum's proposals calls for journalists to seek the opinion of approved "expert contacts" on research that they intend to report. It also gives scientists advice on dealing with the media and avoiding misinterpretation. There is a lot of emphasis on avoiding any overstatement of risk and uncertainty.

Curiously though, for a body with a mission to free science from distortion, the Forum shows no apparent interest in encouraging the disclosure of the agendas that have been shown to most affect scientific conclusions  (see Appendix 1). This despite a whole series of recent scandals centring on this issue of conflicts of interest (see Appendix 1), prompting a growing recognition of how seriously commercial interests may undermine free, fair and objective communication about science. In the words of the Editor of the British Medical Journal, "These competing interests are very important. It has quite a profound influence on the conclusions..."

That influence can often be quite overt. An Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS)  survey earlier this year showed that a third of scientists in the UK working in government or in recently privatised laboratories had been asked to change their research findings to suit sponsors, while 10% said there was pressure on them to bend their results to help secure contracts. [ ]

But despite the ubiquity and gravity of these problems, the Forum has almost nothing to say to journalists, and absolutely nothing to say to scientists, about this issue (see Appendix 1). The implicit emphasis of the current draft simply supports career science and journalistic caution, neither of which, when it comes to scientific controversies involving deep uncertainties and powerful vested interests, are likely to contribute greatly to protection of the public interest.

(see Appendix 1 for more on what's missing from the current draft of the Forum's proposals)

Notable figures/shrill voices

Taverne's fellow  members of the Forum on science and health communication include some notable figures and organisations::
Dr David Boak - Royal Society
Dr Michael Clark - Chairman, Commons Science and Technology Committee
Professor Susan Greenfield - Director, Royal Institution
Professor Sir John Krebs - Director, Food Standards Agency
Professor Lewis Wolpert - University College, London
[for details of all members see: ]

Despite the emphasis on "health" in the code and guidelines, there is no one on the Forum representing the British Medical Association, nor any UK medical journal.  This curious omission might be thought unfortunate in terms of the Forum's credibility. The British Medical Journal has helped lead the way in setting standards in order to uncover falsified research results and disclose researcher bias [see, for example, BMJ editorial Vol 317], while the Lancet has fearlessly exposed the impact of corporate deception on science [,2763,156849,00.html]. The editors of both these world-renowned journals have also been outspoken on the general issue of conflicts of interest (see Appendix 2). The BMA has, of course, displayed both caution and independence over the issue of GM foods. [see]

Equally curiously for what is billed as a "Forum of leading scientists", while such notable voices as those of the BMA, the BMJ and the Lancet are silent, the "voices" of  some fairly obscure clinicians are to be heard amongst those selected to represent the medical profession. This might suggest attitude rather than eminence formed the real basis of selection.

One certainly might be forgiven for thinking so in the case of Forum-member Dr Roger Fiskin who first came to public notice with a letter to Private Eye:

"Prof. Krebs is right and you are wrong:  the whole GM debate in the British media has been a disaster as far as public information is concerned.  The experiments carried out by Puztai were, in scientific terms, a pile of steaming horse-shit... [etc]"
[Private Eye, 24 March 2000 (p14)]

This disparagement of Pusztai's work comes not from a scientist with any expertise or experience in nutritional science, in general, or food-gut interactions, in particular, but from a little-known hospital consultant without a single research publication to his name.

What prompted his escape of bile was an article in the Eye which, not for the first time, questioned Tony Blair's reasons for appointing one of Fiskin's fellow Forum members, Sir John Krebs, as head of the Food Standards Agency. Blair claimed that Krebs was a suitable choice because his views on GM were "balanced", but  the Eye noted Sir John's previous denunciation of the "shrill, often ill-informed and dogma-driven objections to GM foods". [Private Eye 10 March 2000 (p8)]

Fiskin also wrote to the Lancet, furious at its publication of Pusztai and Ewen's paper. In the context of an attack on the views of the Lancet's editor, Fiskin bemoaned the failure of scientists to attack the media in general with more vigour:

"… we as scientists have not been nearly aggressive enough in attacking the scaremongering and sheer nonsense put out by the lay media on a variety of medical and scientific topics. Besides writing about these issues we should be lobbying the Press Complaints Commission and the government to try and ensure that journalists are taken to task and made to publish amendments if they grossly distort the facts in any kind of technical reporting."

The Social Issues Research Centre

Fiskin's letter to the Lancet is singled out for praise on the website of the Social Issues Research Centre. The SIRC comments:

"We at SIRC wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. That is why we are  currently working with the Royal Institution, the Select Committee on Science  and Technology, leading scientists, doctors and journalists to develop solid guidelines and a code of practice in this area."

The SIRC fails to mention that one of those that they are "working with" is Fiskin himself. In fact, the Social Issues Research Centre appears to have been the main driving force behind the Forum on which Fiskin sits, which is billed as a joint SIRC/Royal Institution body.

So what is the Social Issues Research Centre? According to its website [], the SIRC promotes "rational debates based on evidence rather than ideology". The Centre also "operates a permanent ‘social intelligence’ unit, engaged in continuous monitoring and assessment of significant social, cultural and ideological trends." The work of the SIRC is guided by an Advisory Board "consisting of eminent scientists and consultants in a variety of disciplines. "

Two notable members of the "Forum of leading scientists" are to be found among the members of the SIRC's Advisory Board -- media zoologist Dr Desmond Morris (as in  "Manwatching") and the Director of the Royal Institution, Prof Susan Greenfield.  Another Forum member, Sir John Krebs, is a recipient of especial praise on the SIRC website. Critics of his controversial appointment as director of the FSA are castigated while Sir John is declared "the perfect choice" and praised for his "sensible position on GM foods" []

Exposing whose bias?

As a part of its "monitoring" activities, the SIRC claims to expose misleading reporting of science issues around the world: "scares" and "miracles". It is this "media watch" experience, particularly in relation to the GM debate, which appears to have prompted its call for a code of conduct for journalists reporting science and health stories, so as to promote "fact and rational argument" rather than "hysteria" and "ideology".

The topic of GM crops is given its own special section on the SIRC website []. This contains a number of pieces attacking media coverage of the Pusztai affair. The Guardian comes in for especial criticism for its "abuse of science in the quest for alarming stories" and its "role of fueling the most sensational and irrational aspects of the GM debate":

"Ever since Arpad Pusztai was removed from his post at the Rowett Institute last year for his allegedly incompetent research on GM potatoes, the UK news media has conducted a lengthy campaign to vindicate him. The Guardian, acting as Pusztai's most vociferous champion, led the war against Frankenstein Foods."

The SIRC is unhappy, for example, about a Guardian piece on the Pusztai affair which was co-written by Andy Rowell. According to the SIRC, Rowell is a "Greenpeace activist". In fact, Rowell is not even a member of Greenpeace. He had some years earlier, as a freelance writer, been openly sponsored to write a book by Greenpeace. At the time of co-writing the piece in question, Rowell had not had any connection with Greenpeace for some two years.

The SIRC similarly focuses  on "the credentials of George Monbiot, whose feature Stop the crops  appeared in the Guardian" at the height of the Pusztai controversy. They write:

"We have to remember that George Monbiot, an occasional Guardian correspondent on 'green' issues who championed the Pusztai's case from the beginning, is also  the author of a pamphlet called An Activist's Guide to Exploiting the Media -  a publication about which he now keeps, unsurprisingly, rather quiet."

They go on:

"It is in these circumstances that people come to lose faith in both science and scientists. When serious, rational and calm debate is replaced with deceitful, agenda-driven campaigning, the ability of people to make sound,  evidence-based choices about how they should lead their lives is seriously diminished. It  is for this reason that the Social Issues Research Centre is working closely with newspaper and journal editors, broadcasters... [etc, etc]"

In this account of the deceit and bias in the Guardian's science coverage, and how it helped to prompt the SIRC's development of a Code for the media, the SIRC conveniently overlooks the fact that on the same day that the Guardian ran the "Stop the Crops" piece by Monbiot, it also ran a piece by GM enthusiast Prof Derek Burke furiously attacking Pusztai's supporters. Nor, of course,  is there any demand from the SIRC that Prof Burke's very extensive interests and affiliations with the topic he was writing about should have been more fully disclosed by the newspaper [for more on Burke:].

Ironically, the SIRC's complaints about the Guardian's failure to disclose fully the backgrounds of some of its contributors appear in a series of SIRC articles which are themselves entirely unattributed to any contributor! The SIRC website on which these pieces are "published" similarly fails to identify any of its funding sources.

Far more important though than such selectivity and double standards is the fact that the  Monbiot piece was never presented by the Guardian as a science report by a  "correspondent" (come to that, Monbiot has never been a Guardian "correspondent") but as an opinion piece by a columnist.

The fact that the SIRC, despite all its finger-pointing at the media, cannot apparently distinguish a "correspondent" from a "columnist", is not as trivial a point as it may seem. After all,  if opinion is not masquerading as reported fact, what exactly is the SIRC's problem?

Predictable attacks and passionate believers

A sift through the material on the SIRC website reveals the  problem to be that the SIRC simply does not like certain opinions!  The SIRC emerges, in fact, as an organisation dedicated to attacking the apparent failings of environmentalists and other critics of industry, particularly the food and drink industry.

The broad antipathy to environmental organisations can be gauged, for example, in the SIRC's selection for its "The Pick" of all media items for July 2000 of an article from the Sunday Times reporting claims (some subsequently corrected) of an alleged "crisis" in the membership and funding of the international environmental group Greenpeace. The non-ideological SIRC clearly regards this report as good news.

Those with opinions differing from the SIRC's on genetic engineering are given particularly short shrift. In an article entitled, "The madness of Prince Charles", HRH is lambasted for his "predictable attack on genetic engineering" during this year's final Reith lecture. This we are told "added further insult  to those who believe passionately in the role of such technology" in the developing world. Believing passionately in GM crops is, apparently, a self evidently rational position. Charles's somewhat different perspective helps qualify him as "mad".

In an article attacking another contributor to this year's Reith lectures, Vandana Shiva, the SIRC suggests that perhaps "more appropriate for a Reith lecture than the ramblings of Dr Shiva", when it comes to the plight of Indian farmers, would have been the contribution of the extreme anti-environmentalist Matt Ridley.  Right wing Telegraph columnist Ridley, it seems, is the expert voice on India, as far as the SIRC is concerned, rather than Shiva who "even argues that the much acclaimed  'golden rice'... is not wanted in India."

Good links, bad company, double standards

The identity of opinion of an organisation which has the Director of the Royal Institution on its Advisory Board and "Vox Rationis" as its motto, with an extreme right wing libertarian such as Ridley, should come as no surprise given that many of the SIRC's complaints about the media coverage of the GM issue bear a marked similarity to ones which have surfaced in the output of those, like Ridley, associated either with the far right free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs [], or with Living Marxism (LM) -- the extreme left magazine with an extreme right agenda -- which was recently successfully sued for libel by ITN.

Another indication of what the SIRC apparently regards as models of sound, evidence-based communication is given by its recommended websites -- "Good Links". These include 'Health Watch', the current guise of the controversial Campaign Against Health Fraud which is alleged to focus unfairly on the work of practitioners and researchers whose work is at odds with medical orthodoxy and the interests of the pharmaceutical industry [see "Dirty Medicine: science, big business and the assault on natural health care", by Martin J Walker, London 1993] and the Australian-based "Economically Viable Alternative Green" site, which the SIRC praises for its "Sane and balanced approach to 'green' issues".

In reality, the EVAG site is rabidly anti-conservationist, vehemently denying global-warming etc. Enthusiasm for biotechnology and rants against organic agriculture -- "an indulgence of the wealthy", an elitist "fraud" perpetuated by fearmongers, etc. -- are also examples of the EVAG's  "sane and balanced approach". The man behind the EVAG's anti-conservationist crusade is Barry Hearn. Hearn has been "substitute Junkman" for Steven Milloy of the infamous Junk Science website, when the self-styled "Junkman" went on vacation. Evidence exists that Milloy's "junk science" internet mission was founded with Philip Morris tobacco money as part of their campaign to undermine industry-critical research. The PM campaign was waged via front organisations such as The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, of which Milloy was director, and which is listed as the originator of the Junk Science website. []

Another SIRC recommended site is that of the American Council on Science and Health, which the SIRC says has a "Sensible, balanced approach to a wide range of health issues." In fact, controversy has raged throughout ACSH's over twenty-year history, focusing particularly on the issue of linkage between its extensive corporate backing (eg Monsanto, Dow, Cyanamid) and its tireless  crusading against "health scares" and the "toxic terrorists" who promote them.

The "sensible" and "balanced" ACSH also has Dennis Avery of the right wing Hudson Institute as an advisor and among its published articles are several attacking organic food and rebutting criticism of GM foods. Typical is "Organic Food : Food for Thought?" by David Klurfeld, which repeats the myth about the heightened e-coli contamination risk of organic food that originated with the discredited research claims of Dennis Avery [].

Evidently, the SIRC's abhorrence of "scares" and "miracles" does not extend as far as "scaremongering" about organic food -- any more than to claims of Golden Rice miracles. The SIRC's output, like the ACSH's, thus typifies many of the complaints about science communication in relation to the GM debate which prove to be grounded in ideological objection -- and, as we shall see, self-interest -- dressed up as a concern about standards; the clearest indication of the fatuous nature of the concern being the highly partisan application of the standards!
[For more on such hypocrisy see:]

The charms of industry

It is notable that while the SIRC claims to set such store by expertise and the separation of scientific fact from opinion, in its own material it constantly conflates fact and opinion while the actual expertise of those running the Centre appears very limited -- to clinical psychology and "social science" -- despite which the SIRC pronounces authoritatively on its website on a broad range of issues, arbitrating on "good" and "bad" media reporting of research across a wide spectrum of science.

A consideration of the SIRC's personnel is also revealing in other ways. Kate Fox and Peter Marsh, the two moderators of the Forum on science and health communication, were founders of the SIRC. The SIRC, however, is not the only organisation with which Fox and Marsh have been associated.

Enter stage left, "MCM Research Ltd", an organisation of  media-savvy social scientists based in Oxford, making the following promises:

"Positive Research ... Do your PR initiatives sometimes look too much like PR initiatives? MCM conducts social/psychological research on the positive aspects of your  business... The results do not read like PR literature, or like market research data... Our reports are credible, interesting and entertaining in their own right. This is why they capture the imagination of the media - and your customers."

The two organisations -- SIRC and MCM -- are spookily similar. Fox, a Director of the SIRC turns out to be a former Director of MCM. MCM's current Director is none other than Marsh, the SIRC's Science and Research Director. The training manager for the SIRC turns out to be -- yes, you guessed it -- the training manager for MCM Research Ltd. Then there is fellow Forum and SIRC Advisory Board member, Desmond Morris, whose book "Pubwatching", co-authored with Fox, is exposed on the MCM website as a PR stunt on behalf of a brewery company, a client of  MCM's -- a tactic of MCM's being to present work on behalf of a client as an independent media event.

It is, therefore, no great surprise to discover that MCM's declared client list includes a number of very well known firms from the food and drink industry [] -- any more than that the SIRC's "media watch" section tends to contain articles with headlines such as "More evidence that drinking is good for you", or that the SIRC tells us that it has "repeatedly warned health promotion bodies about the dangers of banning or attempting to restrict consumption of so-called 'unhealthy' foods". [ ]

With regard to MCM's many drink industry clients, it is worth noting that in the view of Dr Griffith Edwards, editor in chief of the journal Addiction, this is an industry tainted not only by the exploitation of vulnerable populations but by the mounting of attacks on valid research and independent researchers. [ ]

There is also evidence for its use of front organisations to mount such attacks. Thus, the Portman Group, which presents itself as a drink industry "watch dog", sought to pay academics substantial sums of money to support "an anonymous attack on a report by the World Health Organisation that had documented evidence on the relation between alcohol consumption and drinking problems." []

This media and research handling front organisation is on the client list of MCM Research Ltd.

A corporate agenda

So what does it tell us that Lord Taverne worries about the objectivity of a journalist with interests in  organic farming, yet he and his influential friends have no apparent qualms about lending credibility to scientists operating as mercenaries for a corporate agenda who critique the media through a prism of extreme right wing opinion?

The SIRC and its media Forum emerge as all too symptomatic of the market friendly science culture that has allowed the industrial alignment of scientific opinion [] not only in the UK but around the world. The character and agenda of the SIRC are, in reality, but a crass example of the often more subtle and pervasive corruption thus engendered. As Berlan and Lewontin note:

"...experts, dressed in the candid probity and the white coat of impartiality and objectivity, use the camera to distract people's attention. Then they put on their three piece suits to negotiate behind the scenes the patent they have just applied for, or sit on the committees that will inform public opinion - quite objectively, it goes without saying - and regulate their own activities."

The industrialisation of research has become so complete, so ubiquitous, that the likes of Sir John Krebs and the Royal Society seem to lack any sense of the duplicity in which they are involved. Otherwise, if they were really so concerned about achieving fair and objective science communication, they might have looked a little closer to home.

They could, for example, have started by asking themselves what a bunch of scientists-for-hire, who fuse scientific research and corporate PR, were doing sitting in judgment on the media. They might even have pondered whether the SIRC's mission to "improve" the media should be viewed as a personal or professional crusade.

In reality, of course, the SIRC's mission is their mission. Propelled by a common agenda, this collaboration of some of the leading lights of the science establishment with the SIRC, is the clearest indication that it is the UK's commercialised science culture, more than its media science coverage, that is in most urgent need of reform.

The real threat that is posed to fair and objective science communication comes from this corporate take over of independent science. As Berlan and Lewontin note:

"It is a serious thing when democracy no longer has any independent experts..."

Appendix 1: what's missing from the emphasis of the SIRC/RI Code of Practice and Guidelines on the Communication of Science and Health issues in the Media

"Journalists who blindly quote 'experts' without illuminating their agenda are simply adding another layer of fog to an already confusing debate" - Howard Kurtz, "Dr Whelan's media operation", Columbia Journalism Review March/April 1990

The current draft of the SIRC's Code of Practice and Guidelines can be seen at:

The SIRC tell us "we hope that these SIRC/RI Guidelines will serve as a model for the development of similar codes in other countries, including the US, and we are trying to raise funding to establish a SIRC base in the US for this purpose."

Superficially, the draft Code and Guidelines appear fairly innocuous. Their emphasis is on stopping journalists unduly alarming the public, and the examples of undesirable reporting given relate to scares regarding vaccines and the pill. There is no mention of the GM debate anywhere, even though it is perfectly clear -- see above --- that it was unhappiness with respect to this that prompted this initiative.

As mentioned above, the implicit emphasis encouraging deference towards the science establishment. The draft Code and Guidelines are also keen to stop the sidelining by the media of science editors in favour of other journalists (eg political or environmental correspondents) -- a smart move, given that just as crime correspondents notoriously enjoy a rather cosy relationship with the police, so science correspondents are known to be wary of biting the hand that feeds them.

Tim Radford and Steve Connor, science editors of the Guardian and the Independent respectively, seem to have been late-joining members of the Forum. Almost as soon as the SIRC's initial draft of the Code and Guidelines was published, it was effectively endorsed in an article by Connor. Interestingly, it was Connor who in the run up to the Lancet's publication of the Pusztai and Ewen paper ran a spoiler article based on an attack by Prof John Pickett, the only reviewer of the paper arguing against publication. Connor's article appears to have been part of a concerted campaign to discredit the Pusztai paper prior to publication []. Prof Pickett's criticisms have been dismissed by Pusztai as so ill-informed as to suggest Pickett had never actually read the paper he was supposedly reviewing. [].

The SIRC's Code and Guidelines are in many ways most notable by omission. They have almost nothing to say to journalists about the issue of conflicts of interest even though the evidence that these can undermine free, fair and objective communication about science-related issues is overwhelming -- see below.

More ominously, the authors have absolutely nothing to say to scientists about this issue. This despite the fact that there is good evidence, as the British Medical Journal notes, that "many authors are willing to sign that they don't have a conflict of interest when by our definition they do." [BMJ, "Beyond conflict of interest; transparency is the key", Vol 317, p.292]

The totality of what the authors have to say with regard to this issue is as follows (from the Guidelines for journalists):

"Known affiliations or interests of the investigators should be clearly stated. This applies not only to researchers who are attached to, or funded by, companies and trade organisations but also to those who have known sympathies with  particular consumer pressure groups or charitable organisations. It should be  recognised, however, that a particular affiliation does not rule out the potential for  objectivity. All scientists are paid by somebody."

Measure this against the following:

* evidence of aggressive corporate deception involving government, researchers and the media,2763,156849,00.html

* evidence of widespread industry pressure on scientists to tailor their research findings and advice to suit sponsors

* evidence of the falsification of data to suit commercial objectives,2763,194211,00.html

* evidence that even indirect industry-linked funding can critically distort researchers' findings and published opinions on issues relevant to public safety

* evidence of misrepresentation of research to the public and the media to suit commercial objectives

* evidence of government coordination of scientists' contributions to the media to support its pro-biotech line and rebut scientific and political criticism

* evidence of pressure to suppress publication of unfavourable research evidence

* evidence of pressure on journalists to under-report unfavourable research evidence

* evidence of heavy corporate influence over research funding, research agendas, and top-level appointments

* evidence of the use of silencing agreements to gag scientists

* evidence of scientists' self-censorship and of the direct suppression of dissenting scientists

* accumulating evidence of corporate bias in the science base of regulatory bodies charged with protecting the public interest

* evidence that patents and other financial interests may be influencing researchers' behaviour in ways which could place the public at risk

* evidence of suppression of unfavourable research evidence into product safety

* evidence that the withholding of unfavourable research evidence into product performance may have led to thousands of deaths

The examples given above of how free, fair and objective communication about science-related issues can be undermined are often, though not exclusively, GM-related. Many more examples exist of powerful commercial and state interests impacting on science and science communication, notably for example in relation to the chemical, pharmaceutical, tobacco, infant formula and and drink industries. There is also evidence that these problems are shockingly common. []

It should also be noted that the SIRC's call for "known sympathies with particular consumer pressure groups or charitable organisations" to be viewed as equivalent to corporate sponsorship or corporate employment, encourages a completely disproportionate sense of influence. As Brian Martin, a social scientist who has made a study of how scientific research can be shaped and distorted by competing forces, has written:

"There is a body of analysis of science that looks at the role of interests in shaping research policy, research practices, and scientific knowledge (Barnes, 1977; Boffey, 1975; Dickson, 1984; Noble, 1977; Primack and von Hippel,1974). The most important interest groups impacting on research are government bodies, corporations, professions, and elite researchers."

In other words, the likes of Monsanto, the Royal Society and public funding bodies, such as the BBSRC, are major players; "particular consumer pressure groups or charitable organisations" are not.

The fact that the Forum wishes to push connections with the latter into greater prominence, without expanding on other potential conflicts beyond direct corporate employment or sponsorship, is perhaps suggestive as to the agenda of some of its members. Certainly, the SIRC consistently uses any connection, no matter how tenuous, between a critical scientist and such organisations as a means of denigrating their objectivity. Thus, it lists as "clear, but totally undeclared, personal reasons for supporting Pusztai’s cause", the fact that among those scientists willing to defend Pusztai was one, a former head of the Open University's Biology Dept, who had been involved in running courses at Schumacher College! Another scientist they see as equally compromised is a professor emeritus of genetics who has shared platforms with a scientist with connections with the Natural Law Party etc, etc. [ ] Needless to say, such McCarthy-like listings of supposedly suspect associations are not accompanied by the disclaimer: "a particular affiliation does not rule out the potential for objectivity".

In his analysis of the evidence on the forces that shape science, Martin also notes:

"...hierarchy in science provides a means by which state, corporate, and professional interest groups can influence day-to-day research" []

Those behind the Forum, unhappy about the media's current science coverage, effectively seek to bring "hierarchy" to bear on the media via the proposal for journalists to refer to approved experts listed on a central database or directory.

Perhaps most importantly, though, far from there being in the draft Code and Guidelines any encouragement to scientists themselves to speak out freely and  inform the public via the media on important but sensitive issues, there is not even any recognition of the considerable obstacles and risks they face if they  seek to do so. Martin, for example, reports:

"As a result of conversations with numerous scientists (Martin 1997), it is my observation that quite a number of scientists avoid doing research or making statements on sensitive issues because they are aware, at some level, of the danger of being attacked if they do. This is compatible with the findings of Wilson and Barnes (1995), who surveyed 70 senior Australian environmental scientists asking, among other things, "Do you believe that scientists may jeopardise their career prospects or research funding success by speaking out on environmental  issues?" More than half replied "yes" and less than one in five replied "no," the rest being unsure."

In fact,  most UK based "public-sector" bio-scientists have a gagging clause in their contracts which effectively prevents them speaking out on sensitive issues like biotechnology even if they wish to. []

So serious is the problem in this regard that an alliance of four leading UK trade unions has recently launched a "charter for science" to include
safeguards for whistleblowers. Trade union leaders have warned that the integrity of British science is threatened by "a dash for commercial cash", (The Times Higher Education Supplement, September 8 2000).

The "expert contacts" proposal would also mean that any researcher dealing with the media would be aware that his or her statements would be immediately subjected to such scrutiny and commentary, making self-censorship more probable in areas of controversy. It would also give the science establishment an additional early warning system for reports requiring rebuttal. How such  early warning can be put to use has been demonstrated several times, perhaps most notably with the Lancet's publication of Pusztai and Ewen's paper [  and]

In short, the Forum's work encourages conformity by implicitly supporting career science and journalistic caution.  As a consequence, the Code and Guidelines seem unlikely to achieve either the fair and free communication of science and health issues or the protection of the public interest in the face of powerful state and corporate pressures.

But that is hardly surprising given that there is little evidence that any of this is part of the agenda of the prime movers behind the Forum -- see above -- who  seem  more interested in manipulating major science-related controversies by excluding  from significance the contributions of all but approved experts.

Appendix 2: some relevant quotes

"The genetic-industrial complex is trying to transform political questions into technical and scientific ones so that responsibility for them can be shifted on to bodies it can control."
-JEAN-PIERRE BERLAN, Director of Research at the National Agronomic Research Institute (INRA), France, and RICHARD C. LEWONTIN, holder of the Alexander Agassiz chair in zoology and professor of population genetics at Harvard University, USA, writing in "The Genetic-Industrial Complex: CASHING IN ON LIFE"
"Journalists who blindly quote 'experts' without illuminating their agenda are simply adding another layer of fog to an already confusing debate."
- Howard Kurtz, "Dr Whelan's media operation", Columbia Journalism Review March/April 1990
[Dr Whelan is the Director of the American Council on Science and Health -- see above]
"Another dimension to suppression operates at the level of belief systems and manifests  itself most commonly through peer review, such as blocking of publications. This sort of suppression is difficult to document and indeed difficult to  distinguish from the "normal" operation of science."
- Brian Martin, "Suppression of dissent in science"
"These competing interests are very important. It has quite a profound influence on the conclusions and we deceive ourselves if we think science is wholly impartial."
- Editor of the British Medical Journal
"...with modern biotechnology the world has discovered a vast new field which is full of potential for creative activity and, for the scientific community at least, patentable and profitable innovations."
-Donald J. Johnston, head of the OECD
" artificial market may have been created by researchers and producers"
-from a British Medical Association press release on GM foods
“There is a great deal of potential research investment in the UK that could come from food technology industries, and any concerns about the safety of these foods could jeopardise this huge investment. So I can understand why scientists would be very anxious about jeopardising that investment.” 
-Richard Horton, Editor of the Lancet interviewed Channel 4 News, Friday 15 October 1999
“The universities are cheering us on, telling us to get closer to industry, encouraging us to consult with big business. The bottom line is to improve the corporate bottom line. It's the way we move up, get strokes... We can't help but be influenced from time to time by our desire to see certain results happen in the lab.”

“All of these companies have a piece of me. I'm getting checks waved at me from Monsanto and American Cyanamid and Dow, and it's hard to balance the public interest with the private interest. It's a very difficult juggling act, and sometimes I don't know how to juggle it all.”
-John Benedict, former Texas AW University entomologist
"The problem is that research at public institutions increasingly reflects the interests of private funders... 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."
- Miguel A. Altieri, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, Division of Insect Biology, University of California
"There is a hidden agenda in the research support business. Those who accept your [industries'] support are often perceived to be less likely to give you a bad scientific press. They may come up with the results that cause you problems, but they will put them in a context in a way that  leaves you happier than had they emanated from someone not receiving your support. My own observation and comment is that this
hidden effect is powerful, more powerful certainly than we care to state loudly, from the point of view of honour either in science or in industry. It takes a lot to bite the hand that feeds you."
- Professor John Reid of the University of Cape Town addressing industry representatives at the 12th annual meeting of the World Sugar Research Organisation
"Because so many influential health professional bodies and doctors in industrialised countries have given up the fight for adequate public funding of essential research, training, and information and have become dependent on corporate finance, those who should be speaking out on behalf of public health are often silent...

How is it that scientists, who pride themselves on their academic rigour in the laboratory, so often seem to be unaware of these issues? Why do so many fail to monitor the activities of their sponsors or acknowledge the impact that their involvement might have in the global context?Why are the bland corporate assurances that these products will answer world hunger, or that they adhere to UN resolutions, believed by so many? Why is it only the non-profit, non-governmental organisations that publicise and expose marketing activities and call for stricter controls?"
- Patti Rundall, international and policy coordinator for Baby Milk Action writing in the British Medical Journal
"All policy makers must be vigilant to the possibility of research data being manipulated by corporate bodies and of scientific colleagues being seduced by the material charms of industry. Trust is no defence against an aggressively deceptive corporate sector." 
- THE LANCET, April 2000
"Increasingly, talk was of patents rather than patients. By the time Gelsinger died in September, some corporate researchers were already battling the NIH in bids to keep serious injuries or deaths in their studies from becoming public. "
-  Rick Weiss and Deborah Nelson, "Gene Therapy's Troubling Crossroads: A Death Raises Questions Of Ethics, Profit, Science", Washington Post, Friday, December 31, 1999
"In the alchemy of the experts, horrible 'bads' are magically transformed into relative 'goods', 'wrongs' into 'rights'. "

"All but the technically initiated are excluded from the debate from the onset, forced to become spectators rather than participants in the central political struggles of the day."
- David Dickson and David Noble, "By force of reason; the politics of science and technology policy" in: Ferguson et al, ""The Hidden Election", 1981
"We should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society."
- Albert Einstein, May 1949

Professor Bullsh*t