Royal Society Under Fire

The Royal Society, UK's national academy of science, has come under fire for its perceived pro-GM bias. Some NGOs have complained to the Charity Commission about its conduct. Claire Robinson investigates and raises serious questions about the august body.

Put yourself in Monsanto's shoes. You're eager to show the UK, with its concerns over intensive agriculture's impact on the countryside, that GM crops are great for wildlife. But you've always promoted them to farmers in North America and beyond as a means of achieving weed-free fields. Weed-free fields are easily obtained with herbicide resistant GM crops – but that's bad news for birds, insects and wildlife. Then there's mounting evidence that GM crops could lead to herbicide-resistant superweeds and increased spraying of more toxic herbicides.

So what do you do?

In fact, Professor Sir David King, the UK Government's Chief Scientific Advisor, admitted on BBC Radio Four (15 January 2003) that more research would be needed to validate the claims of environmental benefit.

But who needs to validate anything when you have the Royal Society on your side?

A shadowy new group called Sense About Science (SAS) appears to be one of the RS's new allies in matters GM. SAS's chairman is Lord Dick Taverne, who recently took Monsanto's skylark road show to the House of Lords.

SAS's pro-GM fulminations are breaking the eerie silence left by the sidelining of the discredited and food-industry funded Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC).

The RS joined with the SIRC and the Royal Institution to produce guidelines telling journalists how to report science issues (read GM). The guidelines recommended a list of approved pro-GM "experts" whom journalists can rely on for authoritative advice. The RS produced the list, which includes the likes of Professor Tony Trewavas - named in the London High Court in relation to a media libel case over GM.

Now, the Royal Society has joined with Sense About Science to set up a committee to examine peer review in science. Why, we may wonder? An editorial in The Independent (31 Jan 2003) explains. The RS is "worried that people do not understand science and therefore fall prey too easily to sensational and unsubstantiated claims". The committee has asked the press not to report findings that have not been peer reviewed.

Does this mean that when biotech supporters hype unpublished, un-peer reviewed "studies" showing that GM crops are safe to eat, benefit wildlife, and vastly increase yields (which often turn out to be producer estimates, opinion pieces and even internal company memos), we can rely upon the RS to intervene and save us from corporate lies?

Sadly not. Examples of "sensational and unsubstantiated claims" to be countered include Quist and Chapela's (published, peer reviewed and replicated) findings of GM contamination of Mexican maize and Pusztai's (peer reviewed and published) findings that GM potatoes appeared to damage the health of rats. The Independent's editorial effectively labels Pusztai's research a "fraud". Where did the paper get its information?

The BBC's science correspondent Pallab Ghosh recently reported that the British Medical Association (BMA) was backtracking on its GM-sceptical stance due to SAS's persuasive arguments. The BMA rushed out a press release to correct Ghosh, pointing to matters of fact that were "wrong" and "totally incorrect". What were Ghosh's sources for his misleading report? Sense About Science and a leading Fellow of the Royal Society, Peter Lachmann.

Professor Sir Peter Lachmann was identified by The Guardian in 1999 as the Fellow of the Royal Society who allegedly threatened Dr Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, that his job was at risk if he published Dr Pusztai's research on GM potatoes. Lachmann's CV, The Guardian noted, included numerous ties to biotech companies.

In a letter to The Times, Lachmann attacked the BMA for criticising the health impacts of GM crops when they have "no expertise in plant science". This didn't stop Lachmann, who similarly has no especial "expertise in plant science", from waxing lyrical in a BBC Online article about how GM plants are no different from other plants.

Sense About Science has no web presence and its funders are undisclosed. It calls itself "an association promoting evidence in discussions of science and risk".

SAS's chairman, Lord Dick Taverne, is not a scientist but a politician/barrister with a long history of supporting GM. Taverne claimed that the media's "sloppiness" on GM issues is "undermining the health of our democracy". As part of his "media distortion" campaign, Taverne sat on the SIRC forum that produced the guidelines telling journalists how to report contentious science issues. Also on this forum was Steve Connor, The Independent's science correspondent and a RS representative.

Taverne commented on the SIRC guidelines in the House of Lords, hoping "that the Press Complaints Commission will enforce this code toughly and come down heavily on the kind of irresponsible and reckless disregard for fact and evidence which has characterised the reporting of many scientific issues in the past".

As an example of reckless disregard for fact and evidence Taverne referred to press coverage of how "Dr Pusztai fed harmful lectins inserted in potatoes to rats". In fact, Pusztai used a snowdrop lectin proven in peer-reviewed research to be harmless to mammals in its natural non-GM form.

He complained in relation to press coverage of Pusztai and GM foods that, "the results of some 50,000 experiments worldwide were completely ignored". But the pitiful number of published peer-reviewed animal studies involving GM food safety or nutrition could be counted on one hand - so the question of where Taverne got his fantastical figure remains a mystery.

Taverne was involved in setting up the biotech-industry supported Science Media Centre, which claimed to be "an independent venture working to promote the voices, stories and views of the scientific community". But its funders include Dupont, Merlin Biosciences, Pfizer, PowderJet and Smith-Nephew. Its press releases are full of quotes from the pro-biotech brigade.

But Taverne is just the figurehead for Sense About Science. The only other named person – SAS's director Tracey Brown – failed to return GM WATCH's calls.

The Royal Society's recently vaunted respect for proper peer review would seem to be highly selective. A letter written by Dr Pusztai on 6 February 2002 to the RS, points out that the RS appears to have made claims for GM food safety by citing a paper which was merely an opinion piece. The opinion piece referred to:

  1. A study by Chinese scientists which, unlike Pusztai's study, had neither been peer reviewed nor fully published; and
  2. A Japanese feeding trial (published in an obscure journal and unknown whether peer reviewed) which would have been illegal in the UK because the rats were starved, putting on hardly any weight (in contrast to Pusztai's research rats which grew well over 300 grams), making it impossible for any valid conclusions to be drawn from it.

Dr Pusztai's experience would appear to confirm that the RS's criterion for judging the quality of scientific research is not scientific rigour or peer review, but the ease with which the results can be presented as showing that there is no problem with GM foods.

The RS deals very differently with results that suggest that GM foods might raise problems. They are attributed to "incompetence", "fraud" or "media inaccuracy", regardless of the facts or the quality of the science. The RS seems quite happy to circulate outright lies about such research. Thus in The Independent's article, ‘Scientists blame media and fraud for fall in public trust', about the Royal Society's views on why the public no longer trusts experts like themselves, we are told:

"Fraud can still slip through the net despite [peer review], but makes up a tiny proportion of the millions of scientific papers published every year.

"Of the three cases cited, however, only Professor Pusztai's work was not peer-reviewed. When it was, the reviewers refused it for publication, citing numerous flaws in its methods - notably that the rats in the experiment had not been fed GM potatoes, but normal ones spiked with a toxin that GM potatoes might have made".

This statement is almost total fabrication. There was no "fraud". Rats were fed GM potatoes. There was no "toxin". The lectin product fed to the rats was directly extracted from the GM potatoes being tested; there was no "might have made" about it, the potatoes did make this substance. Five out of the six reviewers of Pusztai's research approved it for publication - the exception was the reviewer who worked with the RS to smear the research pre-publication. Moreover, approval of all peer reviewers is not and has never been a condition of publication; this remains an editorial decision informed by the peer reviewers' comments.

The Biological Secretary of the RS, Patrick Bateson, continued the misleading claim that peer reviewers "refused" the paper for publication. Bateson wrote in "Science and Public Affairs" that The Lancet published Pusztai's research "in the face of objections by its statistically-competent referees" (June 2002, "Mavericks are not always right").

The fact that Pusztai's Lancet paper successfully came through a peer review process that was far more stringent than that applying to most published papers is being deliberately inverted.

Such smears, like Lachmann's alleged threats against The Lancet's editor, make absolutely no sense in terms of the scientific evaluation of evidence. They only make sense as part of a dirty tricks campaign intended to serve vested interests.

These interests are brought to light in an article on the Royal Society by biologist and social scientist, Dr Tom Wakeford, ‘The Appliance of Science: Britain Urgently needs New Measures to Guarantee the Accountability of its Scientists'. Wakeford makes the following points:

"Set up as a product of royal patronage, the Society's funds have traditionally come, with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, from the public purse. More recently it has begun to receive substantial funds from transnational biotechnology corporations, such as Rhone Poulenc [part of Aventis] and Glaxo Wellcome.

"Honouring such generous donors by making them part of its ‘President's Circle', the Society bizarrely justifies such donations by saying that it will ensure it can ‘formulate balanced judgements about the use of science to solve national, social, economic and industrial problems... independent of vested interests'.

"Until the 1960s, the Philosophical Transactions of the Society carried an advertisement in every issue claiming: It is an established rule of the Royal Society...never to give their opinion, as a Body, upon any subject'.

"In recent years these words have been quietly dropped, and now it seems that British citizens are paying taxes to fund an organisation that actively promotes the interests of multinational biotech corporations, under the guise of independent science."

In a disturbing development, the UK government has decided to have the Royal Society publish its GM crop trials results. The Guardian (29 January 2003) comments: "The government was planning to publish the results of GM field trials in the Journal of Applied Ecology in the summer. As befits a reputable journal, the editors reserved the right to have the papers peer reviewed - in other words, if bits were not scientifically rigorous they would not be published. So now publication has shifted to the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, where, apparently, such stringent peer review will not be necessary".

If the government hopes by association with the once-respected Royal Society to restore public confidence in GM crops, it has surely chosen an unworthy bedfellow. The effect is likely to be quite the reverse.

This is an edited version of ‘The Royal Society: Best of British science or corporate rentboy?' GMWATCH Special Feature, GMWATCH Number 6, 8 February 2003,