Concern for science

March 24, 2000

Is scientific integrity being compromised by political and commercial pressures? asks Tom Wakeford

For the scientific academy the Royal Society, and a host of previously respected UK scientific institutions, this has truly been an annus horribilis. After decades of almost sleepy acquiescence with science, journalists are seeking out the instances of cronyism, censorship and spin-doctoring from which they had previously seen scientists as being somehow aloof.

When I penned a round-up of the year's tortuous events for my regular column in the journal Science and Public Affairs, however, it was vetoed. Though the magazine is officially independent - published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science - some of its funding comes from the Royal Society.

Alun Roberts, editor of the journal, admitted that he had withdrawn my column because fellows of the Royal Society "wouldn't like it". He had in mind an article penned last year by Lord Melchett, who has campaigned against GM crops. The Melchett article drew fierce criticism from some of the society's fellows.

The Royal Society also swung into action last year when it was sent a draft of a paper raising fears about genetically modified foods by the scientist Arpad Pusztai. Pusztai's paper was about to be published by The Lancet. Royal Society fellow Peter Lachmann telephoned The Lancet editor Richard Horton. A row ensued, the details of which are contested.

Whatever was actually said, the Royal Society admits the establishment of a unit that emails a group of its fellows with information that helps them mould public opinion along pro-GM lines.

Tony Blair's recent retraction of his unquestioning support for GM crops was driven by Downing Street's focus groups. Ministers know they can be voted out of power. But how accountable are decisions about GM technology at the Royal Society?

British citizens are paying taxes towards funding an organisation that appears to pay scant regard for the public's desire for initiatives that move the UK away from chemically intensive agriculture towards an organic farming system. Many fellows must feel frustrated at their inability to influence the society's pro-GM stand.

One of the arguments put forward in favour of GM technology is that it has the potential to feed the poor in developing countries and that the West is wrong to jeopardise GM research and development that promises such benefits. But in India this month, a citizens' jury of Indian farmers voted by nine votes to four against sowing GM seeds on their land. Even the most illiterate farmers showed an understanding of the potential risks of new agricultural technologies.

In private, many scientists working in universities across Britain are sceptical of the benefits of GM, but feel they cannot speak out for fear of jeopardising the renewal of their fixed-term contracts. Guidelines for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, a government funding agency, ban scientists funded by the council from becoming "involved in political controversy on biotechnology or the biological sciences". To support GM crops uncritically is not, apparently, considered to be in breach of this code. George Orwell's Ministry of Truth could not have devised a better scheme.

Recent research by the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, which represents scientists in government departments, research councils and private companies, reveals that one in three government-funded laboratories has been asked to modify its conclusions or advice to suit the customers' preferred outcome or obtain further contracts. While some senior scientists may feel this is necessary in the race to, in the BBSRC's words, "meet the needs of users", and "thereby assist the UK's economic competitiveness", I fear that Britain's reputation for scientific integrity may be being fatally undermined.

Our competitiveness could be eroded if we are increasingly seen as the home of compromised science. With more and more scientists becoming involved in industrial partnerships, the recent inquiry launched into an alleged conflict of financial interests of the leading Royal Society figure, Roy Anderson, could be indicative of things to come.

Despite being the headquarters of the world's most unaccountable trans national corporations, the United States also has a tradition of freedom of information. With a membership of 50,000, the Union of Concerned Scientists acts as a check on the activities of its academies and laboratories through activities such as the Sound Science Initiative.

Early reports of this summer's white paper on innovation suggest it will contain measures that might bring greater transparency. But the government should also launch a review into the functioning and accountability of the Royal Society. If it does not, Sir Robert May should institute such an inquiry when (and if) he becomes president in November. In addition, British science is crying out for a body like the UCS that promotes the open and reflective debates that are required for scientists to be servants of citizens rather than a self-censoring, unaccountable elite.

Tom Wakeford was a member of the DTI's Biosciences Advisory Group (1998-99) and a lecturer at the University of East London.

How accountable is the Royal Society and is it right to support GM technology? Email us at soapbox@thes.co.uk

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