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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 Nightingale from 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.

11 Responses to following the money misses the point

  1. Notes on GM Situation after Rothamsted speech by UK Environment Minister on 19th June 2013

    Media Assessments
    I have reviewed the various comments written and presented over the weekend June 20/22 in and by the media following Owen Patterson’s speech at Rothamsted on June 19th:

    Group A
    Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Mirror, the Sun, Financial Times, Evening Standard, Western Morning News, Herald, the Yorkshire Post, Belfast Telegraph, Grocer, Farmer’s Weekly, FarmingUK , the New Scientist, BBC Today, BBC News, BBC Walesonline and Scientific Alliance.

    Group B
    Daily Mail, GMFreeze

    I am delighted to report that all in Group A gave a “straight” report about the contents of the speech. At the same time as mentioning the Minister’s positive comments they did refer to some of the views of the anti-GM camp (see below) but without using outlandish claims about the alleged problems associated with GM or with irrelevances.

    Group B consists of the only ones vehemently and vociferously opposed to GM.

    Not surprisingly the organisation GMFreeze who are implacably opposed to GM did voice their disapproval in strong terms.

    The surprise is the attitude of the Daily Mail who would appear to be out on a limb in opposing GM using terns They still talk about Frankenfoods and write, using Prince Charles as the reference, that Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide because of GM. Spurious claims about alleged bad effects of GM food on rat stomachs and on liver (animal not specifies) were made that have since been repudiated by peer reviewed papers.

    • John Little says:

      Are you saying in your last sentance that Seralini et al 2012 research findings present spurious claims? The French would not agree with you. Who are you VIc Shoorocks to say this anyway?

      • Chris Magee says:

        My colleague was one of the peer-reviewers on the Seralini study. It failed peer review, and they knew it would which is why they went to the press before it was peer-reviewed.

  2. Tom Parkhill says:

    I think that there is a lot to be written on this. Like much else in science, it’s a case of taking the balance of consensus, but we don’t expect individual people to change their minds just because they are wrong; Linus Pauling on Vit C and cancer, Fred Hoyle on the steady state, Einstein on quantum theory… the list is endless, but they were not wrong because they were taking money, they were wrong because they had backed themselves into a corner and didn’t want to get out. Following the money is useful, but it’s not a magic bullet.

  3. Peter Melchett says:

    I see you have mentioned my visit to you a few years ago, and although you have never mentioned this to me since, you now claim that during the visit I said I would provide you with ‘a list of leading scientists at respected scientific institutions who publish in peer reviewed journals and who oppose GM’. I have no recollection of this, and I can assure you I would not agree to something which contains so many blatant value judgements ‘leading’, ‘respected and ‘credible’)! Credible to who? ‘Respected’ by who? I assume the answer is – by the pro-GM campaign? Clearly you actively discriminate between different scientific findings, with peer reviewed publication, the usual scientific benchmark, insufficient for your purposes – I assume because this allows dissenting scientific conclusions, critical of GM, to be published?

    However, if you really are interested in science that does not fit your remorselessly pro-GM view, I am happy to refer you to an article I wrote last year ‘The Pro-GM Lobby’s Seven Sins Against Science’ (with 91 scientific references for you to look at). I would be happy to visit you again to debate my conclusions, or to do so in public.
    Peter Melchett, Soil Association

  4. PB says:

    “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.”

    Yes but many of these scientists were also wincing at the appallingly arrogant attitude of Monsanto and others, whose responses on queries such as the distance that pollen could travel were extremely misleading an ignorant.

    Some of them were very dubious about Roundup Ready GMOs and subsequent events have proven them right.

    The real issue is the capture of our highly disfunctional food system by transnational companies – GM has been a stick to beat them with, but it is the wrong stick – it’s time for the anti-GM lobby to tackle the bigger issues.

  5. John says:

    Disparaging a scientist/study because of their funding is also short-sighted by activists, because if they are correct that any (even minor) financial link inevitably invalidates a study, then their figureheads and the studies they conducted are not valid, either. (Whether Seralini or Carman, both received funding from activist groups, organic industry or alternative health companies.) This means there are no studies left that indicate any problems with GMOs. On the other hand, if the funding of Seralini and Carman does not taint their findings, then such independence must also be conceded to other researchers. (And this means the big majority of studies finds no problems with GMOs.) Seems activists are in hot water when it comes to pointing fingers…

  6. Jon Fairburn says:

    Just to say I really enjoyed that article – considered and well argued.

  7. Chloe Herrington says:

    In the real world it is unrealistic and perhaps even detrimental to try to avoid all conflicts of interest – every person will always have their own interests, whether financial or otherwise. We must instead work to create a synergy of interest instead

  8. scott says:

    Surely SMC is aware that the Gates Foundation is investing in industrialized agriculture via GM seed companies like Monsanto.

    This article simply changes the road to give a different appearance.

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