8-Misc: Pro-GM food scientist accused to threaten Lancet editor
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TITLE: Pro-GM food scientist 'threatened editor'
SOURCE: The Guardian, UK, by Laurie Flynn & Michael Sean Gillard
DATE: November 1, 1999
----------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ ------------------
Pro-GM food scientist 'threatened editor'
The editor of one of Britain's leading medical journals, the
Lancet, says he was threatened by a senior member of the Royal
Society, the voice of the British science establishment, that his
job would be at risk if he published controversial research
questioning the safety of genetically fied foods.
Richard Horton declined to name the man who telephoned him. But
the Guardian has identified him as Peter Lachmann, the former
vice-president and biological secretary of the Royal Society and
president of the Academy of Medical Sciences. The Guardian has
been told that an influential group within the Royal Society has
set up what appears to be a "rebuttal unit" to push a pro-biotech
line and counter opposing scientists and environmental groups.
Dr Horton said he was called at his office in central London on
the morning of Wednesday October 13, two days before the Lancet
published a research paper by Arpad Pusztai, the scientist at the
centre of the GM controversy. Dr Horton, editor of the Lancet
since 1995, said the phone call began in a "very aggressive
manner". He said he was called "immoral" and accused of
publishing Dr Pusztai's paper which he "knew to be untrue".
Towards the end of the call Dr Horton said the caller told him
that if he published the Pusztai paper it would "have
implications for his personal position" as editor. The Lancet is
owned by Reed Elsevier, one of Europe's largest scientific
publishing houses. At the end of the call Dr Horton, 37, said he
immediately informed his colleagues and named the caller.
Prof Lachmann, a professor of immunology at Cambridge and a Royal
Society fellow for 17 years, confirmed that he rang Dr Horton on
October 13 to discuss his "error of judgment" in deciding to
publish the paper. He said he called Dr Horton after he had been
emailed, "probably by the Royal Society", a proof of the paper.
However, Prof Lachmann, 67, "categorically denies" making any
threat to Dr Horton during the call. "This is absolute rubbish,
it would never have crossed my mind," he said. "I didn't accuse
him of being immoral. I said there were moral difficulties
aboutpublishing bad science. I think I probably suggested to him
that he knew the science was very bad. They [the Lancet] knew it
was bad science, whether you call that untrue or not, I don't
think I used the word untrue." Prof Lachmann's call to Dr Horton
was preceded by a series of controversial interventions by the
society on the Pusztai affair. While vice-president of the
society, Prof Lachmann chaired a special working group on GM
plants for food use last year which endorsed their "potential for
real benefits" but recognised the need for further research and
monitoring. The Royal Society says that its report is now being
used as a "source document" by the government. The Lachmann group
report was published in September 1998, a month after Dr Pusztai
first expressed his concerns on British TV about their safety,
questioning government regulatory procedures. Dr Pusztai's
employer, the Rowett Institute, had authorised the interview, but
it seized his data, forced him to retire and banned him from
In February, Prof Lachmann was one of the 19 Royal Society
fellows who attacked Dr Pusztai's work in an open letter. He and
other key Royal Society fellows have since been at the forefront
of defending GM technology and extolling its ability to solve
world hunger and provide safer food and medicines.
His extensive CV includes a recent consultancy to Geron Biomed,
which markets the animal cloning technology behind Dolly the
sheep, and a non-executive directorship for the biotech company
Adprotech. Prof Lachmann is also on the scientific advisory board
of the pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham, which invests
heavily in biotechnology. He denies any conflict of interest,
arguing that his expertise in the area qualifies him to comment.
The first intervention came in March when the Royal Society,
which does not normally conduct peer reviews, took the unusual
decision to scrutinise Dr Pusztai's work. A group of reviewers,
whom the society refuses to name, concluded after examining
incomplete data that it appeared to be "flawed in many aspects of
design, execution and analysis".
Dr Horton wrote a Lancet editorial that month accusing the Royal
Society of "breathtaking impertinence". Prof Lachmann, who was
not involved in this peer review, nevertheless countered with a
letter attacking the journal's position as "absurd". Dr Horton
published the letter in July. At the same time, the Lancet was
considering whether to peer review and publish the now famous
paper by Dr Pusztai and Stanley Ewen on the effect on the gut of
rats fed GM potatoes.
Dr Horton was also considering publishing a second research paper
by another team of scientists. They had looked at the same GM
protein used in Dr Pusztai's potatoes and found that it binds to
human white blood cells. The health implications must be further
researched before the GM protein is allowed into the food chain,
the paper recommended.
Dr Horton said he never expected what would follow from his
decision to promote scientific debate by publishing both papers.
He said there was intense pressure on the Lancet from all
quarters, including the Royal Society, to suppress publication.
The campaign, he said, was "worthy of Peter Mandelson".
The Guardian has learned that these interventions are taking
place in an unusual context. According to a source the Royal
Society science policy division is being run as what appears to
be a rebuttal unit. The senior manager of the division is Rebecca
Bowden, who coordinated the highly critical peer review of Dr
Pusztai's work. She joined the society in 1998, from the
government biotechnology unit at the department of the
environment, which controls the release of genetically modified
The rebuttal unit is said by the source to operate a database of
like-minded Royal Society fellows who are updated by email on a
daily basis about GM issues. The aim of the unit, according to
the source, is to mould scientific and public opinion with a pro
biotech line. Dr Bowden confirmed that her main role is to
coordinate biotech policy for the society, reporting to the
president, Sir Aaron Klug. However, she and Sir Aaron denied it
was a spin-doctoring operation.
In May a leaked government memo outlined how its office of
science and technology was compiling a list of eminent scientists
who were on message to rebut criticism and underwrite the
government's unequivocal pro-biotech line. The Guardian has
established that the Royal Society was involved in trying to
prevent publication of the Pusztai paper. This intervention
intensified when it learnt the paper had been peer reviewed for
the Lancet by six scientists, Dr Horton told the Guardian. The
only reviewer arguing against publication was John Pickett of the
government-funded Institute of Arable Crops Research. Prof
Pickett said that when he realised that Dr Pusztai's paper had
been accepted for publication, he took his concerns to the Royal
Society' s biological secretary who told him the society was
already preparing a press release.
Five days before the Lancet published, an article appeared in a
national newspaper in which Prof Pickett broke the protocols of
peer review and publicly attacked the Lancet for agreeing to
publish the Pusztai paper. Two days after the spoiler article
appeared, Prof Lachmann made his phone call to the editor of the
Lancet. Dr Horton said the society had acted like a star chamber
throughout the Pusztai affair. "The Royal Society has absolutely
no remit to conduct that sort of inquiry."
Sir Aaron said he knew nothing about the phone call to Dr Horton
and whoever spoke to the Lancet editor was not doing so on the
society's behalf. However, he confirmed that the society had a
proof of the Pusztai paper before the Lancet published it
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