The Royal Society was founded in 1660 and claims to be the world’s oldest scientific organization. Its illustrious past presidents include Isaac Newton and Humphrey Davey.
The Royal Society gives as its primary objective the promotion of ‘excellence in science’. It says it has three roles: as the UK’s national academy of science, as a learned Society and as a funding agency. However, Moira Brown, a professor of neurovirology at Glasgow University, sums up the view of a number of critics when she describes it as ‘a self-perpetuating elite’.
Set up as a product of royal patronage, the Society’s funds have traditionally come from the public purse. More recently it has begun to receive substantial funds from transnational biotechnology corporations, such as Rhone Poulenc and Glaxo Wellcome, as well as from corporations in the oil, gas and nuclear industries (see, for example, The Royal Society Annual Review 1998-99, p.26).
Curiously, the Society 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’. But the biologist and social scientist Dr. Tom Wakeford sees it somewhat differently, ‘British citizens are paying taxes to fund an organisation that actively promotes the interests of multinational biotech corporations, under the guise of independent science.’
Fellows of the Royal Society often have extensive commercial interests of their own, or depend on corporate funding for their own research activities and successes. The Royal Society’s former Vice President and Biological Secretary, Sir Peter Lachmann, for instance, has been:
– A scientific advisor to SmithKline Beecham
– A non-executive director for Adprotech plc, a biotech company which he helped spin out from SmithKline Beecham
– A consultant to Geron Biomed, which markets the cloning technology behind Dolly the sheep
The Society’s former President (1995-2000), Sir Aaron Klug, joined the Scientific Advisory Board of GeneProt, which has a commercial relationship with Novartis, in June 2000, i.e. while still the Society’s President.
For 300 years a key principle of the Society was not meddling in public controversies. Its journal Philosophical Transactions carried a notice in every issue stating, ‘It is an established rule of the Royal Society… never to give their opinion, as a Body, upon any subject.’ But by the 1960s the notice had quietly been dropped, and by the late 1990’s the Society’s then President, Sir Aaron Klug, was boasting, ‘We have contributed early and proactively to public debate about genetically modified plants.’ (President’s Address, The Royal Society Annual Review 1998-99).
In September 1998 the Royal Society issued its first report on GM crops, entitled ‘Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use’. Its expert group broadly concluded that the use of GM plants had the potential to offer benefits in agricultural practice, food quality, nutrition and health.
Almost every member of the group was a known supporter of GM foods. The chairman was Peter Lachmann – later accused of threatening the editor of The Lancet in an effort to prevent the publication of Dr. Arpad Pusztai’s research showing adverse effects on rats from GM potatoes.
Other contributors holding positions within the Society were Aaron Klug (President), Brian Heap (Foreign Secretary) and Rebecca Bowden (Secretary). Others involved in drawing up the report included Ed Dart of Adprotech – the biotech company which Lachmann helped found – and also a former R&D Director of Zeneca Seeds, Neville Craddock of Nestlé, Phil Dale and Mike Gale plus two other colleagues from the John Innes Centre, Derek Burke, Chris Leaver, Alan Malcolm, and Noreen Murray.
A year later the Royal Society was a key contributor to the ‘white paper’, Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture, issued jointly by seven national academies of science. The paper emphasized the potential of GM crops to relieve hunger and poverty. The team which represented the Royal Society on this occasion was constituted by Aaron Klug, Brian Heap, Mike Gale and Michael Lipton, with Rebecca Bowden once again as Secretary. Gale, Heap and Lipton were also part of the team that produced the pro-GM Nuffield Council report that included an appendix highly critical of Dr. Pusztai.
The Royal Society and its leading Fellows were key players in the attacks on Dr. Pusztai from the time he went public with doubts about the safety of GM foods. In February 1999, for instance, nineteen Fellows of the Royal Society condemned Pusztai, in all but name, in a letter published in the national press. Among the signatories was Peter Lachmann.
Three months later in May 1999 the Royal Society published a partial ‘peer review’ of Pusztai’s then unpublished research. This review was based not on a properly prepared paper, like that Pusztai and his collaborator Ewen later had peer-reviewed and published, but on a far-from-complete internal report intended for use by Pusztai’s research team at the Rowett Institute.
Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, described the Royal Society review as ‘a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication of their work.’ Peter Lachmann responded with a letter to The Lancet, attacking both The Lancet and the British Medical Association for ‘aligning’ themselves ‘with the tabloid press in opposition to the Royal Society and Nuffield Council on BioEthics’. The Royal Society’s review was organised by members of a working group appointed by the Society in coordination with the Society’s officers. The Royal Society claimed that anyone who had already commented on the Pusztai affair had been excluded from this decision making process in order to avoid bias. However, William Hill, Patrick Bateson, Brian Heap and Eric Ash, who were all involved, were all among the co-signatories of the letter condemning Pusztai that had been published in The Daily Telegraph back in February.
In addition, four key people involved, including the Chair of the working group, Noreen Murray, as well as Brian Heap, Rebecca Bowden and Sir Aaron Klug, were all part of the earlier working group that had issued the Royal Society’s 1998 report supporting GM foods.There were other issues of bias. For instance, William Hill, the chair of the Pusztai working group, was also the deputy chair of the Roslin Institute, famous for genetically modifying animals and for cloning Dolly the sheep. Roslin in turn had links to Geron Biomed for whom Lachmann consulted. Similarly, Noreen Murray was the wife of the co-founder of Europe’s first biotechnology company, Biogen.
Undaunted by the Royal Society’s attack on their unpublished work, Pusztai and his co-researcher, Prof Stanley Ewen, submitted their final paper on their experiments to The Lancet. It was sent to six reviewers, double the normal number, and a clear majority were in favour of its publication.
However, prior to publication The Lancet’s editor Richard Horton received a phone call from Peter Lachmann, the former Vice-President of the Royal Society. According to Horton, Lachmann called him ‘immoral’ for publishing something he knew to be ‘untrue’. Towards the end of the conversation Horton says Lachmann also told him that if he published Pusztai’s paper, this would ‘have implications for his personal position’ as editor.
The Guardian broke the news of Horton being threatened in November 1999 in a front-page story. It quoted Horton saying that the Royal Society had acted like a Star Chamber over the Pusztai affair. ‘The Royal Society has absolutely no remit to conduct that sort of inquiry.’ Lachmann denied threatening Horton although he admitted making the phone call in order to discuss the pending publication.
The Guardian also talked of a GM ’rebuttal unit’ operating from within the Royal Society. According to the journalist Andy Rowell, who helped research The Guardian article, Rebecca Bowden, who had coordinated the Pusztai peer-review and who had worked for the Government’s Biotechnology Unit before joining The Royal Society in 1998, admitted to the paper, ‘We have an organization that filters the news out there. It’s really an information exchange to keep an eye on what¹s happening and to know what the government is having problems about Š its just so that I know who to put up.’
The attacks on The Lancet editor and his decision to publish Pusztai’s paper continued. Sir Aaron Klug, vigorously opposed the publication of Pusztai’s research, saying it was fatally flawed in design because the protein content of the diets which control groups of rats were fed on was not the same as that of the other diets. Pusztai commented: ‘In fact, the paper clearly states that ALL diets had the same protein content and were iso-energetic. I cannot assume that Sir Aaron is not sufficiently intelligent to read a simple statement as that, so the only conclusion I can come to is that he deliberately briefed the reporters with something that was untrue.’
Richard Horton remained unbowed. ’Stanley Ewen and Arpad Pusztai’s research letter,’ he wrote, ‘was published on grounds of scientific merit, as well as public interest’. What Sir Aaron Klug from the Royal Society cannot ‘defend is the reckless decision of the Royal Society to abandon the principles of due process in passing judgement on their work. To review and then publish criticism of these researchers’ findings without publishing either their original data or their response was, at best, unfair and ill-judged’.
The attacks continue unabated. Peter Lachmann’s successor as Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, Patrick Bateson, told readers of the British Association’s journal Science and Public Affairs that The Lancet had only published Pusztai’s research ‘in the face of objections by its statistically-competent referees’ (June 2002, Mavericks are not always right). Bateson, presumably deliberately, inverts 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.
In an article in The Independent, giving the Royal Society’s views on why the public no longer trusts experts like themselves – ‘Scientists blame media and fraud for fall in public trust’ – Pusztai’s work is categorised as ‘fraud’. Pusztai’s peer reviewers, we are told in the article, ‘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.’ Almost every word of this is straight fabrication. There was no fraud. Rats were fed GM potatoes. The publication of Pusztai’s Lancet paper was supported by a clear majority of its peer reviewers, etc. etc. It is particularly ironic that such a travesty should have been published in an article reporting the Royal Society’s concerns about the reporting of science in the media.
In February 2002 a new Royal Society report on GM crops was published as an update to the Society’s September 1998 report. The expert group which produced it was much more broadly based than in ’98 and the report took a noticeably more cautious line. ‘British Scientists Turn on GM Foods’, ran The Guardian’s headline on a report which included an admission ‘that GM technology could lead to… unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional status of foods’.
The expert group was chaired by Jim Smith, who had sat on the Society’s Pusztai working group, and tucked away inside the report was a paragraph on Pusztai. Once again, it was designed to mislead.
The first part of the paragraph read: ‘In June 1999, the Royal Society published a report, review of data on possible toxicity of GM potatoes, in response to claims made by Dr. Pusztai (Ewen and Pusztai, 1999). The report found that Dr. Pusztai had produced no convincing evidence of adverse effects from GM potatoes on the growth of rats or their immune function.’
The Royal Society report references the phrase ‘claims made by Dr. Pusztai’ – claims it said it had reviewed – to the article published by Pusztai and Ewen in The Lancet in 1999. In fact, however, the Royal Society’s partial review of Pusztai’s research was published months before The Lancet article appeared. The Royal Society thus conceals the fact that it had only ever reviewed part of Pusztai’s data, condemning him ahead of publication of his actual paper.
The 2002 report continued: ‘It concluded that the only way to clarify Dr. Pusztai’s claims would be to refine his experimental design and carry out further studies to test clearly defined hypotheses focused on the specific effects reported by him. Such studies, on the results of feeding GM sweet peppers and GM tomatoes to rats,and GM soya to mice and rats, have now been completed and no adverse effects have been found (Gasson and Burke, 2001).’
But the Gasson and Burke paper, to which these further feeding studies are referenced by the Society, was not a piece of primary research but an ‘opinion’ piece written by two pro-GM scientists, Mike Gasson and Derek Burke. Worse, one of t he two further studies mentioned had not even been published, except by way of summary, i.e. it had never been fully peer-reviewed. In other words, the Royal Society uses an unpublished and un-peer-reviewed study to attack Pusztai, two years after it had condemned him for speaking to the media without first publishing peer-reviewed work.
In response to criticism, the Royal Society admitted that the work in question remained unpublished but said this was not a problem because, ’it had been discussed at international scientific conferences’. By this definition, however, Pusztai’s research would have been equally validated before the Society ever launched its partial review as it had been presented at an international conference prior to the Society’s review. Curiously, the Royal Society has also described the opinion piece by Gasson and Burke as ’primary research,’ even though it is a literature review involving no lab work.
Andy Rowell, author of a book that deals extensively with the Royal Society’s role in the Pusztai affair, writes, ‘the fundamental flaw in the scientific establishment’s response is not that they try and damn Pusztai with unpublished data, nor is it that they have overlooked published studies [supporting Pusztai’s concerns], but that in 1999, everyone agreed that more work was needed. Three years later, that work remains to be undertaken… (A) scientific body, like The Royal Society, that allocates millions in research funds every year, could have funded a repeat of Pusztai’s experiments.’
The Royal Society’s support for GM has involved more than issuing reports and condemning Pusztai. The Society has also sought to assert control over how the media reports scientific controversies. In 1999 it issued its Guidance for editors, which begins by quoting the Press Complaints Commission Code that, ‘newspapers and periodicals must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material’, and warns, ‘Editors must be able to demonstrate that the necessary steps have been taken’.
‘Journalists’, the guidelines state, ‘must make every effort to establish the credibility of scientists and their work’. To assist them in this, the Royal Society said it would publish a directory that provided a list of suitable scientists to advise journalists on their stories. The implication is that the nominated expert in the field would be able to comment both on the scientific issues and the validity of the views of the scientist in question, giving a sense of their orthodoxy and legitimacy.
When the Royal Society’s directory was made available online, it was criticised in The Times: ‘At best, it can be seen as undemocratic nannying tendency. At worst, sinister news manipulation by scientific spin-doctors who cannot even agree among themselves on many issues or who may, in order to conceal incompetence or hidden agendas, try to play down a serious threat to public health and safety.’
Stephen Cox, for the Royal Society, told The Times, ‘There is no censorship involved, but the scientific community feels under siege from hostile press coverage of such issues as GM foods and cloning’. Among the experts the Royal Society listed for issues to do with GM foods and genetic manipulation were Mike Gale and Anthony Trewavas.
The idea of a directory of approved experts for journalists was eventually taken over by the industry-funded Science Media Centre (SMC), housed within the Royal Institution (RI). The Royal Society’s Guidance for editors was similarly replaced by Guidelines on science and health communication prepared by the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) in partnership with the Royal Society and the Royal Institution. The British Medical Journal is amongst those who have noted the SIRC’s intimate links to the food and drinks industry.
In addition, to the SIRC and the SMC, the Royal Society has also worked closely with another lobby group, Sense About Science (SAS) – the directors of both the SMC and the SAS are part of the Living Marxism network.
Both the Royal Society and Sense About Science have set up working groups on the issue of the reporting of science and peer review. The Sense About Science working party is chaired by the Royal Society’s former Vice President, Sir Brian Heap. Pat Bateson, the Society’s Biological Secretary has been assigned to liaise with the SAS working party as has Bob Ward, its senior manager for press and public relations. Peter Lachmann is also on the SAS working party which meets at the Royal Society.
Simultaneously the Royal Society has established its own working party on peer review. It was this that prompted The Independent article about how the Royal Society was battling scientific fraud and innacurate reporting in the media. A Fellow of the Royal Society and member of its working party, Prof Harvey, was quoted a The Scotsman article on the working party, saying Pusztai had been reported as ‘right’ when he was ‘wrong’. Harvey also referred to Pusztai’s ‘spurious results’. Andy Rowell commented in The Guardian, ‘already this investigation looks like it will be used to attack those who have published science critical of commercially sensitive areas’.
As details of Britain’s official ‘public debate’ on GM were finalised in autumn 2002, Lord May, who succeeded Aaron Klug as President of the Royal Society, spoke out about the danger of its being ‘hijacked’ by ‘lobby groups’. Part of the official process was a science review. Most of the meetings set up to assist the science review panelists in their work took place at the Royal Society or the Royal Institution.
Dr. Les Levidow was among a number of scientists who complained about partisan chairing and other problems of bias at the meetings held at the Royal Society: Dr. Levidov complained that far from an open debate on the science, what occurred at the Royal Society ‘policed the scientific debate through assumptions and emphases favourable to GM crops’. He concluded, ‘If there is to be an open debate on scientific unknowns and difficult issues in risk research, then it will need to be organized elsewhere.’