GENTECH archive


Trewavas, the Royal Society, the UK Government, and why ANYTHING GOES!

On 7 Oct 2001, at 11:41, ngin wrote:

Norfolk Genetic Information Network (ngin),
The Scottish newspaper, The Herald, has just had to make a public
apology for a series of allegations that had "no foundation" and
"should not have been published". The allegations were contained
in a
letter from Prof Anthony Trewavas of the Institute of Cell and
Molecular Biology of the University of Edinburgh. In addition to the
public apology for publishing the letter, the Herald has also had to
pay undisclosed damages and all the legal costs arising from the

The libelous allegations concerned the campaigning over GM foods
Greenpeace and its former Director, Peter Melchett. On the face of
alarm bells should have quickly rung at The Herald over a letter
alleging that one of the world's foremost environmental organisations
was profiteering through corporate "shakedowns" while its Director
manipulated the market to line his own pocket. So how on earth
did one
of Scotland's leading dailies get into such a scrape?

The most obvious explanation for the paper's failure to apply its
normal standards of editorial scrurtiny is, of course, the source.
>From the paper's point of view it must have seemed their source was
both highly expert and well informed. After all, Prof Trewavas is not
only a UK Government advisor on GM but a leading Fellow of the Royal
Society -- the very body that has sat in judgement on the issue of
journalistic accuracy in relation to issues like the GM foods debate.
Indeed, the Royal Society has gone as far as to issue guidelines for
the press to follow on science-related matters, as well as providing
the media with a directory of experts for journalists to contact to
ensure that they get their stories right.

It was back in May 1999, following the Pusztai affair, that a House of
Commons Science and Technology Select Committee report first called
for the media's science-related coverage to be governed by a strict
code of conduct for accuracy. The report began by quoting the Press
Complaints Commission Code that, "newspapers and periodicals must take
care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material", and
warned, "Editors must be able to demonstrate that the necessary steps
have been taken".

To help the media to do this the Royal Society published its 'media
directory' in order to provide a list of scientists that journalists
could consult to give them access to "the best source" of "advice and
comment". If a scrupulous Herald journalist had consulted the media
guide, he'd have quickly found listed amongst the "Royal Society
experts" for his expertise on genetic manipulation and plant molecular

TREWAVAS, Professor Anthony (FRS)
Institution:University of Edinburgh

So while the whole point of the media guide is to help "newspapers and
periodicals [to] take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or
distorted material", one of the Royal Society's own leading Fellows
and media advisors has actually caused a newspaper to do just that and
big time. The question then naturally arises as to whether the Royal
Society will now admonish Prof Trewavas and remove him from its list
of journalistic advisors.

It hardly seems likely given the Royal Society's own sorry history of
media interference in this area: “We have  contributed early and
proactively to public debate about genetically modified plants...”
[President's Address, The Royal Society Annual Review 1998-99] Most
notoriously this pro-activity resulted in a front page story in the
Guardian that suggested media manipulation of the GM debate has been
critical to the RS's own agenda.

Interestingly, Prof Trewavas in a message to US scientists, advising
them to work with the likes of far right politicians like Jesse Helms
and to make full use of letters to the press, stated that there was a
group of about a dozen leading UK scientists who were working together
at the core of pro-GM campaigning in this country [Tony Trewavas,
'advice to US scientists', Apr 18 2000, published on the AgBioView
list]. One can only speculate as to how many other of those
campaigners are, like Trewavas, leading Fellows of the Royal Society .

But it hasn't been only the Royal Society, of course, which has given
Prof Trewavas a place of honour. The UK Government has also sought to
benefit from his impartial expertise by appointing him as one of its
advisors on GM.

And, as well as sitting on the UK's Advisory Committee on Genetic
Modification (ACGM), Tony Trewavas is also on the Governing Council of
the John Innes Centre, the UK's leading plant biotechnology institute.
The Governing Council has responsibility for developing , together
with the JIC's Director, the long-term vision of the institute.

The JIC’s director, Prof Chris Lamb, has publicly expressed his
concern at the "polarisation of discussion about agriculture".
According to Prof Lamb, its part of the JIC's vision to seek to foster
"balanced scientific discussion" and to get away from "polarising

It is rather hard to see how this is furthered by having someone on
your Governing Council who accuses a non-profit NGO, whom he happens
to disagree with over the future of agriculture, of operating "various
shakedown campaigns", receiving "big $$" from self-interested
companies, and being susceptible to "well-placed pay-offs"!

But then given that Prof Jonathan Jones of the JIC shows his
commitment to balanced discussion and avoiding "polarising rhetoric"
by terming GM critics,  "the green mujihadeen", and posting material
on the JIC website describing them, either individually or
collectively, as "anti-scientific", "bigoted", "mystical", "myopic"
and prone to erupt with "green bile", the JIC is perhaps even less
likely to take action over Trewavas and his libelous allegations than
the Government or the Royal Society.

In the final analysis what is it that ultimately protects Trewavas?

Let us just imagine for one fantastical moment that the target of Prof
Trewavas' unfounded allegations about "shakedowns" and "pay-offs" had
not been Lord Peter Melchett and Greenpeace but Lord David Sainsbury
and a leading biotechnology company. Would the JIC, the RS and the
Government have even waited for the outcome of any resulting libel
case before they gave Prof Trewavas the bum's rush?

It hardly seems likely. But why?

It would, of course, be utterly reprehensible to suggest the answer
had anything to do with what Prof Trewavas terms "big $$". The fact
is, however, that the JIC's activities have, like those of many
leading Fellows of the Royal Society, benefited from the multi-million
pound investments of the leading biotech corporations. The Royal
Society, via its fundraising campaign, has also received millions from
corporations, including those like Rhône Poulenc and Glaxo-Welcome
with major biotech interests [The Royal Society Annual Review 1998-99,
p.26] And, of course, former food industry boss, GM enthusiast and
biotech entrepreneur, Lord David Sainsbury, has given millions both to
the governing Labour Party, who have given him a peerage and made him
Science Minister, and to the John Innes Centre.

But whatever the source of the double standards, there is no doubt
about the reality of the problem. Indeed, the joke of it is that it's
the very people who have complained most bitterly about the standards
of accuracy of the media and the critics in relation to the GM debate,
who have themselves consistently ignored such standards in relation to
scientists making statements supportive of industry.

In the latter case, while such scientists claim the moral and
intellectual high ground, in reality ANYTHING GOES!  Statements like
those contained in the Trewavas' letter that turn out to be wildly
misleading or even entirely false, pass without censure because they
are actually par for the course and common currency in pro-GM

Of course, if the Government, the Royal Society and the John Innes
Centre really wanted to prove that they had not become utterly coruupt
in this era of corporate science, they could start by setting some
standards and sacking Prof Trewavas, but... don't hold your breath!
--- --- LINKS & QUOTES:

* evidence of aggressive corporate deception involving government,
researchers and the media,2763,156849,00.html

* evidence of misrepresentation of research to the public and the
media to suit commercial objectives

* evidence of widespread industry pressure on scientists to tailor
their research findings and advice to suit sponsors

* evidence of the falsification of data to suit commercial objectives,2763,194211,00.htm

* evidence that even indirect industry-linked funding can critically
distort researchers' findings and published opinions on issues
relevant to public safety

* evidence of government coordination of scientists' contributions to
the media to support its pro-biotech line and rebut scientific and
political criticism

* evidence of pressure to suppress publication of unfavourable
research evidence

* evidence of pressure on journalists to under-report unfavourable
research evidence

* evidence of heavy corporate influence over research funding,
research agendas, and top-level appointments

* evidence of the use of silencing agreements to gag scientists

* evidence of scientists' self-censorship and of the direct
suppression of dissenting scientists

* accumulating evidence of corporate bias in the science base of
regulatory bodies charged with protecting the public interest

* evidence that patents and other financial interests may be
influencing researchers' behaviour in ways which could place the
public at risk

* evidence of suppression of unfavourable research evidence into
product safety

* evidence that the withholding of unfavourable research evidence into
product performance may have led to thousands of deaths

"Journalists who blindly quote 'experts' without illuminating their
agenda are simply adding another layer of fog to an already confusing
debate." - Howard Kurtz, "Dr Whelan's media operation", Columbia
Journalism Review March/April 1990 --- "These competing interests are
very important. It has quite a profound influence on the conclusions
and we deceive ourselves if we think science is wholly impartial." -
Editor of the British Medical Journal --- “There is a great deal of
potential research investment in the UK that could come from food
technology industries, and any concerns about the safety of these
foods could jeopardise this huge investment. So I can understand why
scientists would be very anxious about jeopardising that investment.” 
-Richard Horton, Editor of the Lancet interviewed Channel 4 News,
Friday 15 October 1999 --- "All policy makers must be vigilant to the
possibility of research data being manipulated by corporate bodies and
of scientific colleagues being seduced by the material charms of
industry. Trust is no defence against an aggressively deceptive
corporate sector."  - THE LANCET, April 2000 --- “The
universities are cheering us on, telling us to get closer to industry,
encouraging us to consult with big business. The bottom line is to
improve the corporate bottom line. It's the way we move up, get
strokes... We can't help but be influenced from time to time by our
desire to see certain results happen in the lab.”

“All of these companies have a piece of me. I'm getting checks waved
at me from Monsanto and American Cyanamid and Dow, and it's hard to
balance the public interest with the private interest. It's a very
difficult juggling act, and sometimes I don't know how to juggle it
all.” -John Benedict, former Texas AW University entomologist ---
"...with modern biotechnology the world has discovered a vast new
field which is full of potential for creative activity and, for the
scientific community at least, patentable and profitable innovations."
-Donald J. Johnston, head of the OECD --- " artificial market may
have been created by researchers and producers" -from a British
Medical Association press release on GM foods --- ‘Well I think there
is a very real problem from the point of view of university research
in the way that private companies have entered the university, both
with direct companies in the universities and with contracts to
university researchers. So that in fact the whole climate of what
might be open and independent scientific research has disappeared, the
old idea that universities were a place of independence has gone.
Instead of which one's got secrecy, one's got patents, one's got
contracts and one's got shareholders.’ -Professor Steven Rose of the
Open University Biology Dept

"The problem is that research at public institutions increasingly
reflects the interests of private funders... Civil  society must
demand a response of who the university and other public organizations
are to serve and request more research on alternatives to
biotechnology." -Miguel A. Altieri, Department of Environmental
Science, Policy and Management, Division of Insect Biology, University
of California --- "There is a hidden agenda in the research support
business. Those who accept your [industries'] support are often
perceived to be less likely to give you a bad scientific press. They
may come up with the results that cause you problems, but they will
put them in a context in a way that leaves you happier than had they
emanated from someone not receiving your support. My own observation
and comment is that this hidden effect is powerful, more powerful
certainly than we care to state loudly, from the point of view of
honour either in science or in industry. It takes a lot to bite the
hand that feeds you." -Professor John Reid of the University of Cape
Town addressing industry representatives at the 12th annual meeting of
the World Sugar Research Organisation --- "Increasingly, talk was of
patents rather than patients. By the time Gelsinger died in September,
some corporate researchers were already battling the NIH in bids to
keep serious injuries or deaths in their studies from becoming public.
" - Rick Weiss and Deborah Nelson, "Gene Therapy's Troubling
Crossroads: A Death Raises Questions Of Ethics, Profit, Science",
Washington Post, Friday, December 31, 1999

"We should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific
methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not
assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express
themselves on questions affecting the organization of society."
-Albert Einstein, May 1949