Leifert walkout is 'premature'

August 1, 2003

The academic who resigned from the government's science review panel on genetic modification came under fire from fellow members this week.

Carlo Leifert, director of the Tesco Centre of Organic Agriculture at the University of Newcastle, resigned from the review panel in June, more than a month before the publication of its first report last week. He said he feared the panel was ignoring key issues.

But panel members told The THES that Professor Leifert's walkout was premature and might compromise the debate.

Philip Dale, a member of the panel from the John Innes Centre, said: "He pulled out quite early in the process before we had any real dialogue about the issues."

Panel member Janet Bainbridge, who is also chair of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which advises on GM, denied that the review was in any way one-sided.

She said: "We thought we were all working together. The process was about raising concerns, not sweeping them under the carpet.

Minutes published on the review's website last week revealed that Andrew Stirling, an expert in science and risk who is on the panel, had complained about being threatened with losing his research budget and professional reputation if he opposed GM. An unnamed person associated with the panel in a "privileged academic or regulatory" position had made the threats.

The Soil Association has written to prime minister Tony Blair insisting the government act immediately to identify and dismiss this official.

Peter Melchett, policy director at the campaign group, said: "The government has responded to these threats with an extreme degree of complacency. They didn't publish the minutes of the meeting until after the review was out. And what is the chief scientist going to do about it? Absolutely nothing."

Sir David King, the government's chief scientist, said he "abhorred" any attempt to undermine Dr Stirling's professional standing.

Representatives of both sides in the GM debate defended the way Sir David had conducted the review. Pete Riley, who heads the campaign against GM at Friends of the Earth, said: "Professor King has handled the divergent views about GM in terms of the gaps and uncertainties in the science reasonably well."

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