View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

Industry funding of research isn’t ‘hidden’ or corrupt

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Last week, the Council for Science and Technology released a (very positive) report on GM, calling for more trials, more investment, and a more evidence-based regulatory system. This was widely reported elsewhere with barely a mention of unhelpful phrases such as ‘frankenfood’, so for a summary I would suggest the BBC, the Guardian, or the Guardian’s analysis.

Sadly, the next day the Daily Mail had its say: ‘Scientists’ hidden links to the GM food giants’. For a start the headline is misleading because information about industry funding of research institutes is freely available. It then goes on to attack individual scientists in a way that is not constructive to the debate (including names and photos). Here are my problems with their article:

Industry funding

As I have mentioned before, I have concerns about industrial funding of research, but I also have concerns about the ‘corporations are all corrupt’ attitudes. For a start, I’m a capitalist, I eat food produced by multi-nationals and I benefit from the cheap food that intensive agriculture provides.

Although I am unsure about whether or not it is always appropriate, I can see two main reasons for universities accepting industrial funding: research is funded by corporations not the tax payer, and in many cases the way research will benefit society is through commercialisation.

If we have accepted that it is legitimate for research organisations to accept funding from business, we can’t then assume that all their employees have sold their souls and have effectively been paid to tow the party line.

The scientists who wrote the report

Surely, scientists who work on GM are natural choices for writing reports about it? If we’re going to mistrust the views of anyone with expertise in genetic modification, we’re rather limiting our choice of experts.

A dig seemed to be that advocates for GM were chosen to write the report. We have to look at cause and effect. The implication is that the scientists wrote a positive report because of their views about GM, but if your research shows that GM has potential benefits, isn’t it natural that you become an advocate for it?

I suspect cause and effect are impossible to establish here, and (although I have no evidence either way) it is feasible that attitude to GM could have been a factor in choosing which experts should write the report. I don’t doubt, however, that their attitudes arose from their interpretation of the data rather than their funding.

One accusation is that one of the scientists is a consultant for Syngenta (the money goes to his department, not to him). I, personally, am glad that Syngenta consults academic scientists.

I don’t believe that academic scientists belong in ivory towers. Taxpayer’s money should be spent for the good of society, and as such government-funded scientists should interact with society, including business.

Bias, real and imagined

Bias worries me enormously, and I constantly ask myself if I am allowing myself to become biased to the sources I choose to trust. If you were an early advocate of GM it can be hard to admit that the story is more complex than you’d anticipated; if you have a world view of ‘natural is good’ then possibilities of environmental benefits of GM can be hard to entertain.

However, I completely reject suggestions that money has caused corruption to academic scientists.

My advice

My advice to everyone who wrote a derogatory comment under the article: if you’re worried about the way academic researchers work with business, don’t attack individuals mentioned in a Daily Mail article, write to your MP or to the research councils which fund the research. Perhaps you have a better model for industrial funding?

My advice to a hypothetical academic scientist with no scruples who is saying nice things about GM to increase their chance of funding: if ethics mean nothing to you then what are you waiting for? Start up a pay-day loan company, work for a bank investing in weapons manufacture… At the very least, make sure you actually work for Monsanto.

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Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I studied for my PhD with the University of York and spent my time chasing migrant butterflies. I have trained bees to detect explosives, written a novel, organised Biology Week for the Society of Biology and visited universities round the world with Nobel Laureates. I am collecting friends to help me save the world. My website is: http://rebeccanesbit.com/

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