Money Talks, Muffling Dissenters

Money Talks, Muffling Dissenters
From foodtank.com, by Doug Gurian-Sherman

In conjunction with the huge amounts of biotech industry money pouring into public universities has come the intimidation of scientists who criticize or question the development of biotechnology. A result has been the relative silence of academic scientists who have concerns about biotechnology or its development. The result of biotech industry money therefore seems to be not only an amplification of industry-friendly academic voices, with their ability to lend credibility to biotech, but also the likely reduction of academic scientist perspectives that could counter industry arguments.

Some of this has been well documented in articles such as those in the journals Nature and Nature Biotechnology several years ago. One young scientist who was subject to such an attack by biotech industry supporters was quoted as saying, “The response we got—it went through the jugular.” In her case, this amounted to unfounded letters to the publisher of her research paper, and to the funder (the National Science Foundation) of her research, accusing her of verging on scientific misconduct.

Over the years, there have been a number of cases where scientists have run afoul of the biotechnology research establishment, and sometimes paid a high price for it. Respected senior scientist Arpad Pusztai was fired from his job with the Rowett Institute in Britain for disclosing concerns about research on GE potatoes in 1998.  John Losey was heavily criticized for his peer-reviewed and published research article suggesting that GE crops may harm monarch butterflies.

Ignacio Chapela was a vocal critic of a large project at the University of California, Berkeley, funded by the biotech company Novartis (which later became the biotech giant Syngenta). He was denied tenure despite almost unanimous support in his department. This was overturned after strong public outcry.

A thorough and lengthy review of the implications of the industry grant by Michigan State University in 2004 found the industry deal had troubling implications for academic independence. For example, Prof. Lawrence Busch, who headed the evaluation of the Novartis deal commented that the agreement "played a very clear role and an unsatisfactory role in the tenure process" of Mr. Chapela. Busch was also quoted as saying "Universities as institutions can only be objective observers on the scientific and regulatory scene to the extent that some distance remains between them and industry funding sources."

More recently Prof. Gilles-Eric Seralini was the subject of an unsuccessful effort to remove him from his position at the University of Caen, and ongoing efforts to discredit him. A peer-reviewed paper by his research group in 2012 that found harm from an engineered crop to test rats after long-term feeding, was subjected to an extraordinary and unusual amount or criticism and pressure on the journal to retract it. The retraction did not appear to conform to published standards, but relied on lack of definitive results, which if widely applied would lead to the retraction of a large number of peer-reviewed research papers. A former member of the editorial board of the journal wrote “Your decision can be interpreted as a will to eliminate scientific information that does not help support industrial interests is, in my view, unacceptable’’ The paper was subsequently republished in another journal.

What distinguishes many of these efforts is not their criticism of research. That is a normal and welcome aspect of the scientific process. Instead, they often involve attempts to discredit the scientists themselves or to harm their careers. That goes far beyond normal scientific disagreement, even for strongly held views, and should raise questions about what is behind these efforts. They also are part of a strong message to the science community involved in these fields.

But perhaps most troubling is that many opposing or critical views may never be seen by the public due to pressure on these scientists. This was revealed pointedly in a NYT article in 2009, where 26 academic scientists (entomologists) wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to complain that they could not perform needed research on GE crops due to industry control via their patents. These scientists were generally supportive of GE crops, not anti-GE activists. The restrictions on research were widely noted. Less discussed was the fact that all but a few of the most senior scientists who signed the letter requested anonymity due to expressed fears about harm to their research funding.

As someone long involved in these debates, I have heard directly from, or about, a number of scientists concerning intimidation from administrators or colleagues at their institutions, or general exclusion from participation of normal functions of their professional societies. And I have experienced some of these attacks personally.

It is difficult to definitively show that industry money is directly or indirectly at the root of these events and others. But the large amount of smoke surrounding them strongly suggests an industry-stoked fire.

The consequence of all of this influence laundering and the stifling of dissent has been a distortion of the public debate about genetic engineering, and especially how it is developed, to whose benefit, and with what consequences to agriculture and society more broadly.

Blindness to this issue, or deliberately looking the other way, as shown by the authors of the PCAST report, is yet another symptom of a mainstream science community substantially captured by powerful private sector interests. As with the harmful influence of the fossil fuel sector in slowing response to climate change, the influence of the non-sustainable industrial agriculture industry over social decisions is resulting in huge global harm to the environment and society. At a time when our food systems are facing challenges like the impact of climate change on food production, loss of genetic resources and biodiversity, and food injustices, we desperately need an independent science community to help address these issues. That can only happen when the corrupting influence of industry money is reversed.     

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