ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

The New Thought Police

Jonathan Matthews, Norfolk Genetic Information Network (NGIN),
Mae-Wan Ho , the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS)

Science is in crisis. The full extent of that crisis surfaced recently when trade union leaders warned that "a dash for commercial cash" threatened the integrity of British science [1]. This followed a survey of scientists working in government or in recently privatized laboratories which found that one-third of the respondents had been asked to change their research findings to suit the customer's preferred outcome, while 10% had had pressure put on them to bend their results to help secure contracts[2].

In Britain’s handful of top research universities, dependence on private funding is acute, often amounting to 80-90% of the total research budget. And Britain is far from alone. In February Canada's Royal Society noted with concern the way in which university researchers were building "unprecedented ties with industry partners" and the "profound impact" that this was having on the choice of research topics[3].

In the US,  UC Berkeley is a classic case of corporate dominance of the research agenda. Here a  rapid expansion of departments focused on molecular biology and genetic engineering has gone hand in hand with the elimination of Berkeley's world-renowned Division of Biological Control along with its Department of Plant Pathology and more than half of all faculty positions in entomology. Ecological approaches are being "downsized", according to Berkeley entomologist Andy Gutierrez, because, "You can’t patent the natural organisms and ecological understanding used in biological control" . [4]

In the UK a similar narrowing of research priorities has been occurring [5]. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the industrial alignment of public science is being driven solely by private finance. Public funding is often  focused just as heavily on patents and profits and is increasingly conditional on greater private sector involvement with "wealth creation", "market orientation" and "entrepreneurial science" as the buzz words.

It is hardly a coincidence, then, that the main funding body for Britain's academic biologists, the BBSRC, is chaired by the former executive director of a major biotech corporation while its committees have been stuffed with figures linked to corporate giants such as Dupont, Rhone Poulenc and Zeneca.[6]

If such a funding climate seems unlikely to encourage independence of thought, word or research, consider the BBSRC gagging clause which prevents the scientists whose departments and institutes it funds from becoming "involved in political controversy in matters affecting research in biotechnology and biological sciences"[7]. The reality is, of course, that scientists can (and do!) hype biotech to their hearts' content. The clause is aimed strictly at the sceptics.

It was this code of practice which restrained whistle-blower Dr Arpad Pusztai for so many months while pro-biotech scientists and Fellows of the UK Royal Society vented their collective spleen on his research and reputation. The fact that much of the resulting media coverage was still highly damaging to the kind of corporate interests that are now so entwined with public science is a lesson that has not been lost.

In January of this year came news of a new science media centre to be housed in the Royal Institution. Supported by UK Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, and the President of the Royal Society, amongst others, its aim is  to help "sceptical and impatient journalists" get their stories right on controversial issues such as "animal research, cloning and genetically modified food." [8]  The new centre, however, is but the latest episode in a deceitful agenda-driven project to control science communication which had its origins in the Pusztai debacle.

In May 1999 a House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee report called for the media's science coverage to be governed by a strict code of conduct for accuracy. In co-ordinated fashion, the Royal Society issued special "Guidance for editors" and this, in turn, was soon reproduced in a House of Lords Select Committee Report on Science and Technology.

"Journalists", the Lords' guidelines state, "must make every effort to establish the credibility of scientists and their work".  The Royal Society would publish a directory providing a list of suitable scientists to assist  journalists in placing in context the views of any particular scientist.

"Newspapers may suppose that they have produced ‘balanced’ reports by quoting opposing views". Not so, according to the Royal Society, if "the opposing view is held by only a quixotic minority."  Journalists are told to identify, wherever possible, a majority view, and that is the one they should present.

All of these bodies lay especial emphasis on peer review as confering legitimacy on scientific claims. One problem with this is that  it can be totally counter to the public interest to wait for peer review  if there is the possibility of danger to health or the environment. After all, it took Pusztai nearly two years to get even part of his work published in The Lancet and even in the final hours a leading Fellow of the Royal Society, Peter Lachmann, tried to prevent Pusztai's paper appearing in print. [9]

Not all editors proved as resistant as the Lancet's Richard Horton to Royal Society pressure. Tom Wakeford, who has a regular column in the journal Science and Public Affairs, wanted to round up the year’s events in 1999 as "an annus horribilis" for "the Royal Society, and a host of previously respected UK Scientific institutions". "After decades of almost sleepy acquiescence with science," wrote Wakeford, "journalists are seeking out the instances of cronyism, censorship and spin-doctoring from which they had previously seen scientists as being somehow aloof." The editor of Science and Public Affairs, Alun Roberts, withdrew Wakeford's column on the grounds that Fellows of the Royal Society "wouldn’t like it" -- just the latest, according to Wakeford, "in a long series of arms-length censorships by a Society that also publishes many of the most prestigious journals in science."[10]

Science and Public Affairs though officially "independent" derives some of its funding from the Royal Society. This kind of leverage is clearly lacking in the case of the mass media. To make matters worse, the way in which the Royal Society had become so embroiled in the Pusztai affair had left it with a credibility gap.

Enter: a little known group of media-savvy social scientists styled the 'Social Issues Research Centre' (SIRC) together with the Royal Institution, in the person of its equally media-savvy Director, Professor Susan Greenfield CBE FRS. The SIRC campaigns against "irresponsible" reporting on food and health issues, taking in not only "media sensationalism" over GM foods but also medical  "scares" (eg vaccine contoversies) and press hype about "miracle" cures. This broader focus, particularly when taken together with the Royal Institution's long involvement in presenting science to the public, offered a better profile for  media influence.

RI Director Greenfield, as an Advisor to the SIRC, was a pivotal figure in the project, bringing  together the two bodies as co-conveners of a Forum of mainstream scientists and science journalists, including many with an extremely pro-GM stance: eg Dr Michael Clark MP, Chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee; Sir John Krebs, Fellow of the Royal Society and Head of the UK Food Standards Agency; Lewis Wolpert, Fellow of the Royal Society and member of its Committee for Public Understanding of Science; Steve Connor, science editor of the Independent; and the rabidly pro-biotech politician and journalist, Lord Dick Taverne.

In September 2000 the RI/SIRC Forum  launched its detailed Code of Practice on Science and Health Communication . The Code is aimed not only at journalists but also at scientists.

Although the general impression the Code attempts to convey is that of wishing to prevent both ‘scare stories’ and ‘hype’, it is no different in substance to the original Royal Society guidelines for editors. The new Code again recommends that journalists consult with approved experts, a secret directory of which was to be provided to "registered journalists with bona fide credentials".

It also lays great emphasis on peer review. Indeed, the new Code goes further and actively discourages scientists from disclosing unpublished results even at professional scientific meetings, thus breaking with the time-honoured tradition of open communication among scientists. Until now it has been standard practice for new scientific results to be presented at conferences, before they have been subjected to peer review and published. And no one expects science journalists to wait until the papers are accepted for publication, which may be many months, if not years, later. Peer review has never previously been a precondition for research being brought to the attention of the public.

Of course, like the BBSRC's gagging clause, this aspect of the Code is only likely to be invoked selectively, ie as a means of inhibiting or censuring publication of 'controversial' findings. Consider, for example,  last spring's OECD Edinburgh conference on GMOs, where Arpad Pusztai was once again repeatedly vilified for having commented 'prematurely' on his research findings. By contrast, Professor Zhangliang Chen, Vice President of Beijing University, received an almost rapturous reception when he reported his unpublished research findings showing no adverse effectson rats in GM feeding trials. Professor Chen's conference claims were also widely reported in the UK media. Needless to say, neither Professor Chen, his appreciative audience, nor the news organisations concerned, suffered any censure from the conference chairman: Sir John Krebs, then a member of the RI/SIRC Forum.

This is just the tip of the double-standards iceberg. Prominent among those lining up to attack Pusztai in Edinburgh were researchers from some of the UK's leading crop science institutes[11], yet researchers from these self same institutes have behaved in ways that put Pusztai's supposed misdemeanors in the shade. Researchers from the Institute of Arable Crops Research, for example, allowed Monsanto to conduct press tours of their GM crop trials 2 years ahead of the publication of their research, resulting in a whole series of stories in the UK media shown subsequently to have been misleading[12]. The same researchers are  among the scientists now involved in overseeing the UK's farmscale trials.

In a similar vein, the Head of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the the John Innes Centre, the UK's leading plant genetics institute, told a public meeting of soon to be published US research showing big environmental gains from GM crops. Subsequent enquiry showed that this research to be not so much unpublished as non-existent[13].

Amongst Pusztai's severest critics at the OECD conference was Prof Mike Wilson,  the head of the MAFF-funded institute, Horticulture Research International. Prof Wilson gave an interview to a Scottish newspaper in which he claimed independent research carried out by Cornell University had shown that, amongst other things, GM crops brought significant benefits for wildlife. Although the research in this case did at least exist, it had not in fact been carried out by Cornell but by an industry-backed organisation and it contained absolutely no data on wildlife[14].

Needless to say, at least two of the institutes in question have major funding links to the biotech industry[15]. While the RI/SIRC Code requires that "interests" of investigators should be clearly stated, it says this should apply 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".

Clearly , the two cases are hardly equivalent. For researchers funded by companies, there is everything to be gained in terms of both scientific repute and monetary reward in promulgating the corporate agenda. For scientists who go against the grain, there is everything to be lost, including their careers and professional standing.

The Code goes on to state, "It should be recognised, however, that a particular affiliation does not rule out the potential for objectivity…. All scientists are paid by somebody". This is a flagrant attempt to blur the distinction between publicly funded scientists whose allegiance is first and foremost to civil society, and those in the pay of unaccountable corporations dominated by the profit motive.

That the Forum goes easy on commercial conflicts of interest, despite compelling evidence that even indirect industry-linked funding can critically distort researchers' findings and published opinions [16 ], is hardly surprising. RI Director, Susan Greenfield,  has repeatedly expressed her approval of the highly entrepreunerial character of contemporary science, and identifies herself as one of those who has been accused of "selling their souls" to the private sector[17].  The SIRC, whom Greenfield advises, is in fact a metamorphosed social research company boasting its ability to provide corporate clients with effective public relations via its 'positive research'. It derives significant funding, for example, from corporations like US food giant Best Foods and others, such as the Portman Group, with a powerful vested interest in food and health reporting. This dubious funding background led the British Medical Journal to ask, "how seriously should journalists take an attack from an organisation that is so closely linked to the drinks industry?"[18] Finally, the Royal Society, which has been pivotal to the whole media control project, has received millions from major corporations including  the biotech transnationals Rhône Poulenc and Glaxo-Welcome[19].

One thing you would never guess from the RI/SIRC Code is that it was drawn up in the lengthening shadow of the BSE scandal. A code that is so obsessive about preventing any overstatement of risk has not a word to say about the danger of false reassurances ­ something that goes to the very heart of the BSE/vCJD epidemic that may claim up to tens of thousands of lives in the UK alone.

The BSE report, published just a month after the RI/SIRC Code, places much of the blame on persistent government denials based on the ‘best scientific advice’.  The ‘best scientific advice’ has, of course, all too often been badly mistaken.  BSE, nuclear power and climate change are just a few of the most glaring examples. It is thanks to journalists reporting minority views that pressure is brought to bear on mainstream scientists to re-examine their stance. By then much damage may already have been done but it would be far worse if minority views never got a public hearing.

BSE, which it now appears may be spreading globally, shows, like climate change, that science is far too important to be left to the politicians or to a science establishment in bed with big business. Our academic institutions have given up all pretence of being citadels of learning and disinterested enquiry into the nature of things; least of all, of being guardians of the public good. The corporatization of science is the greatest threat to our survival and the survival of our planet. It must be resisted and fought at every level.

We must reject the imposition of any code designed to suppress open scientific debate and discussion. Instead, concerted effort must be made by independent journalists and scientists to promote genuine, critical public understanding of science, so that the widest cross-section of civil society may be empowered to participate in making decisions on science and technology. Only then, can we hope to restore democratic control of science to scientists themselves and to civil society at large.


[1] Times Higher Education Supplement, Sept 8, 2000
[2] Survey carried out by the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists
See Scientists 'asked to fix results for backer', Daily Telegraph, Feb 14, 2000,
[3] 'Increasing Commercialization of University Scientific Research in Biotechnology', Report of the Royal Society of Canada's Expert Panel on the Future of Biotechnology,
[4] 'The Kept University', Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn,Volume 285, No. 3 of The Atlantic Monthly, pages 39-54
[5] See, for excample, 'Growers fight plant centre closure', The Guardian, 18 September, 2000
[6]'Scientists gagged by public funding body with big links to industry:  How the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council controls publicly funded scientists", NGIN press release,  March1999 ,
[7] Ibid
[8] 'New independent media centre aims to give scientists a voice',  The Financial Times, Jan 30, 2001
[9]'Pro-GM scientist "threatened editor" ', The Guardian,  November 1st, 1999
[10] See 'Concern for science', Tom Wakeford, The Times Higher March 24, 2000, and 'The Appliance of Science', Tom Wakeford, The Ecologist, Vol 30, No.5 (July - August 2000), p56.
[11] 'Watching Dr Pusztai: Report on the OECD conference on GM Food Safety 28th February - 2nd March 2000', NGIN article,
[12] 'New Study on Transgenic Sugar Beet reveals how the work of Research Scientists is Manipulated through the Media by the Biotechnology Industry', Mark Griffiths,
[13] 'False reports and the smears of men', Jonathan Matthews,  GM FREE, Vol. 1, no. 4, pp8-14,
[14]'Scientists call on organic farmers to bury the hatchet', The Scotsman, August 16, 1999 .  See also, 'False reports and the smears of men', Jonathan Matthews,  GM FREE, Vol. 1, no. 4, pp8-14,
[15] See Griffiths op. cit and  'BIOSPINOLOGY IN OUR SCIENCE COMMUNICATION? Report on the science communication activities of the John Innes Centre', NGIN report: April 2001
[16] 'Conflict of Interest in the Debate over Calcium-Channel Antagonists', Henry Thomas Stelfox et al, 'The New England Journal of Medicine', January 8, 1998, Vol. 338, No. 2,
[17]'Scientists and the media: Anjana Ahuja discusses the pros and cons of being a 'media luvvie' with Dr Ian Gibson and Professor Susan Greenfield', The Times, November 9, 2000,,,7-73166,00.html
[18] 'An end to health scares?', Annabel Ferriman,BMJ 1999;319:716 (11 September )
[19] The Royal Society Annual Review 1998-99, p.26

Professor Bullsh*t