Following the money misses the point

Speaking on Radio 4’s PM about Owen Paterson’s GM speech last week, food campaigner Joanna Blythman attacked the SMC for issuing comments to the press from ‘industry-funded pseudoscientists’.

Joanna is not alone in raising the issue of bias and industry funding when scientists enter the fray on GM. Over the years a number of commentators have expressed similar concerns and in another commentary on Paterson’s speech Paul Nightingalefrom Sussex University said ‘telling the public that industry-funded research finds GMOs are wonderful isn’t going to convince them, because they recognize that they have every incentive to say that’.

Some of those raising questions about industry funding of science do so in good faith and indeed some of the comments we issued to the press show that scientists have their own concerns about the commercial dominance of this field.  However, I fear that others deliberately set out to exploit the public’s natural suspicion of industry to discredit the scientists prepared to speak out in this debate.

The first point to make is that critics tend to seriously exaggerate and misrepresent the level of industry funding. Let’s look at the scientists whose comments the SMC issued and whom these critics dismiss. Several work for research bodies like the John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research – both world class plant and agricultural science institutes.  JIC receives over 95% of funding from the public purse and charities, and less than 5% from the private sector. Rothamsted Research gets around 88% from public funds and charities, and around 12% from industry. (It is also worth noting that GM work is only a small fraction of that 12% – most of it goes on biodiversity studies, mathematical modelling of pest and disease epidemiology, plant pathology and honey bees). Other experts quoted by the SMC came from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (3% industry funded) and Institute for Food Research  (10%). And just because an institute’s budget has some industrial funding does not mean an individual scientist from that institute is industrially funded. All the industry funding at JIC, for example, is targeted at specific projects (e.g. antibiotic discovery in bacteria) and some of those quoted on the SMC release have never received any industrial funding.

Other scientists quoted receive no industry funding, including Professor Sir Gordon Conway, FRS, from Imperial College London whose work is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The situation is similar for the SMC. Of over 100 different funders including scientific institutions, charities, universities, government, industry and media, the amount of money from companies with an interest in GM is about £22k this year, 3.7% of our income. Over our ten year history Monsanto has donated a total amount of £3k to the SMC.

So while ‘industry funded’ is technically accurate it is also misleading and perhaps reveals as much about the bias of the critics. A better description would be ‘publicly funded scientists whose institutes also receive small amounts of funding from the private sector’… not so punchy I admit, but more accurate.

The other thing I object to about the pejorative labelling of these scientists is that it implies even a small amount of industry funding will automatically influence researchers. It is deeply insulting to an eminent scientist to suggest that an outside influence, financial or otherwise, would distort their scientific findings. And while none of us should be naïve about the many competing pressures on scientists it is the case that there are tools and mechanisms within science to protect experiments from this kind of influence. Experimental design and the peer review system should protect research from bias and, on top of that, all the institutes above have contracts with industry which include firewalls to allow researchers freedom to publish the facts as they are discovered.

The other thing worth noting about the label ‘industry funded’ is that it is getting harder than ever to find any science that has no link industry. As Professor Colin Blakemore says: ‘the truly independent academic with no ties to industry is now a threatened species’. Academics who discover new drugs or vaccines will ultimately have to turn to pharmaceutical companies to help run clinical trials and produce the drugs.  Universities, under ever more pressures to prove ‘impact’, are being encouraged to ‘spin out’ companies to commercialise their discoveries and many of the institutes above have been told by government that public funds will only be available if they also seek money from industry. Nor do most scientists think that working with industry is automatically corrosive.  Institutes like Rothamsted Research argue that these collaborations allow them to turn their scientific knowledge into technologies that can be used effectively by farmers.

And then there is the thorny issue of government funding for science. Even if the science budget survives a horrible cut in this week’s spending review, the money available from government for research is going down in real terms at a time when promising lines of research are growing. If scientists are to move forward and continue looking for answers to global challenges they need to explore every potential source of research funding.  Whether we like this or not, and many scientists do not, are we seriously going to write off the whole scientific enterprise because of some closer links with industry?  And are these critics also going to dismiss the other work these researchers publish – like on the many threats to the environment or the dangers of climate change – because this research is also linked to private funding?

None of this is to say that journalists and campaigners should not ‘follow the money’ and investigate the impact of industry funding on science.  But the key word here is ‘investigate’. Almost all the claims made and articles written challenging the scientific community’s links with industry merely reference an association. But just like in science there is a vast difference between an association and a cause.  If campaigners or journalists believe that scientists have changed their view or adapted research findings in return for industry funding they should dig out the evidence, splash it on the front pages and launch a twitterstorm. Of course, some will argue that the influence is more subtle than that and scientists will never bite the hand that feeds them.  Sounds plausible, but the idea that eminent scientists would sacrifice their scientific integrity and hard won reputation for tiny amounts of funding from industry needs to be backed up by more than a hunch – even if that hunch plays well with readers.

Moreover, you can ‘follow the money’ on all sides of the GM debate and find someone who will gain commercially. Campaign groups who promote organic over GM want people to buy organic foods – they are not free. And the recent highly criticised studies on health effects of GM when fed to rats and pigs were part funded by campaign groups. I am as unenthusiastic about following the money in relation to anti-GM groups as I am with science, and would prefer a debate in which we all tackle arguments and evidence on their merits. As my colleague Tom Sheldon previously argued on this blog, it’s the quality of the science that matters in the end.  If a good, strong, peer reviewed study demonstrates that GM does significant harm to human health or the environment then the SMC would be the first to shout about it to the media. The fact that it may be funded by anti-GM campaigners would be irrelevant.

The other accusation levelled directly at the SMC is that we ‘hand pick’ pro-GM scientists to comment on these stories. This is not the case. On IVF stories the SMC approaches leading fertility experts, on energy stories energy experts, climate stories climate experts and so on. The quotes we issued were from top quality experts with appropriate experience and expertise in plant and agricultural science, ecology and food research.

When Peter Melchett came to visit the SMC a few years ago, a lively and spirited debate concluded with us asking Peter’s help to provide us with a list of leading scientists at respected scientific institutions who publish in peer reviewed journals and who oppose GM, or to tip us off to credible new studies overturning the established evidence.  While I respect Peter for coming into the SMC and enjoyed the debate, he never did deliver that list and we are still waiting for a tip off. It would be as wrong for the SMC’s staff to trawl the country looking for ‘anti- GM’ scientists as it would be for us to seek out climate sceptics or anti-MMR doctors. There is enough false balance in the media without us amplifying its distorting effects.

This does not mean that we are telling the media to only use voices from mainstream science.  Of course not. Journalists are very good at seeking out opposing voices and rightly so.  But no-one should expect the SMC to be busy furnishing the press with minority voices when there is a strong consensus within mainstream science as to where the weight of evidence lies.  That said, there are differences within plant science on various issues and journalists may find a richer vein of stories if they drew these out rather than resorting to the sterile he-said/she-said wars in GM.

Most scientifically trained experts would not accept the framing of this debate as ‘pro’ vs. ‘anti’ GM, though most of us have long since given up on fighting that battle with journalists. The scientists on our database look at the facts and make judgments accordingly. If they find a systemic problem with GM, they would be the first to call for further investigation, and several of the experts we issued last week emphasised the point that GM is a neutral technology and each case of its use needs to be considered on its own merits.  What’s more, most would not even acknowledge such a category as a ‘GM scientist’.  The knowledge generated through basic research in plant biology can be applied using GM or non-GM routes, and many researchers work on both. Professor Sir Gordon Conway, an agricultural ecologist by training and one of the pioneers of Integrated Pest Management in the early 60s, once wondered out loud if people who imagine places like Rothamsted Research see two buildings – one bathed in green light doing the benign plant science and another bathed in a red light under a neon sign saying ‘Danger – GM’. The truth is a little different. One example of the integration of GM and non-GM science is the work at Rothamsted that led to both the GM wheat trials and an approach known as ‘push-pull agriculture’.  Same research, same researchers, same building: one piece of science that campaigners vilify, the other they argue should be the future of African farming.

In 1999, when anti-GM campaigners hogged the airwaves in a year of frenzied headlines on Frankenstein foods, many of the best research scientists retreated to the safety of their ivory towers and left the myths and inaccuracies unchallenged. Whether the British public choose to accept this technology or not will rightly rely on a much broader set of questions than purely scientific ones, and of course campaigners, politicians and the press should all be at the centre of this debate. But anyone genuinely interested in ensuring that this debate is accurate and well informed would not dismiss top scientists so quickly and would welcome the fact that they are part of the debate too.

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

Source: Science Media Centre UK

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