Charity guide criticised for not declaring GM interests

Sense About Science pamphlet failed to list contributors' links with industry. Zoë Corbyn reports

February 19, 2009

A charity has come under fire for failing to declare all industry affiliations of the experts it enlisted to compile a booklet explaining genetic modification to the public.

The pamphlet was produced by Sense About Science (SAS), a charity that claims to promote scientific reasoning in public discussions.

According to anti-genetic modification campaigners and academics, it failed to mention links between some of the experts who wrote the booklet and GM firms.

For example, the guide's biography of Vivian Moses, emeritus professor of microbiology at Queen Mary, University of London, and visiting professor of biotechnology at King's College London, does not mention that he is also chairman of CropGen, a GM lobby group that receives funding from the biotechnology industry.

It says only that he has been "a full-time researcher in biochemistry and microbiology" and is now "primarily concerned with communicating science to the public".

Critics also argued that the guide should have noted that the John Innes Centre, where eight of its 28 contributors are based, received funding from biotechnology companies.

Michael Antoniou, a geneticist at King's College London, described the omissions as "outrageous".

He said: "GM is a sensitive issue. People have been extremely suspicious because of its industrial connections. So it is imperative that they declare these in this context, as in a journal publication."

Dr Antoniou, who himself provides technical advice to anti-GM campaign group GM Watch, speculated that SAS had not disclosed Professor Moses' directorship because it was afraid of arousing public suspicion.

Guy Cook, a professor at The Open University who conducted two research council-funded studies into the language and arguments of the GM debate, agreed that the contributors' interests should have been declared.

"If not, they deal a severe blow to their own cause, the authority of science, which rests upon rationality, objectivity, evidence and disinterest," he said. "The problem with GM advocacy is that it has compromised these principles, and in so doing has dangerously undermined public trust in scientists."

David Miller, professor of sociology at the University of Strathclyde, who is involved in running the website Spinwatch.org.uk, likened the pamphlet to "a PR exercise".

In a statement to Times Higher Education, Professor Moses said his CropGen role was not a secret but should have been spelt out.

"Had I been asked by SAS how I should be described (I wasn't asked and presumed it knew as I have been one of its advisers for years), I would have suggested: visiting professor of biotechnology, King's College London, and chairman of CropGen."

A spokesperson for the John Innes Centre stressed that most of its funding was public.

"We do not regard our affiliations to industry as a contentious issue. Our interests are not 'vested' and our scientists are extremely careful to avoid conflicts of interest."

Tracey Brown, managing director of SAS, said the booklet's emphasis was on contributors' scientific background.

"They were not seeking to advance any commercial application of GM technology, but to set research in the context of other plant-breeding research and history," she said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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