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Public health warning: our leaders' seduction by science is dangerous

Opinion: Public health warning: our leaders' seduction by science is dangerous
by Michael Meacher
April 29, 2004

WE HAVE reached an extraordinarily odd situation in the saga of genetic modification. The public continues to reject it, the supermarkets will not stock it, the industry itself has pulled out of GM cultivation, but the Government is still keen to go ahead. Why? Tony Blair said recently: “It is important for the whole debate (on GM) to be conducted on the basis of scientific evidence, not on the basis of prejudice.” But being mesmerised by science is at best short-sighted and at worst disingenuous.

Science quite often gets things wrong. Biologists initially refused to accept that power stations could kill fish or trees hundreds of miles away in Scandinavia; later the idea was universally accepted. Scientists did not originally agree that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were destroying the ozone layer; but when the industry — ICI and DuPont — abruptly changed sides in 1987, ministers and scientists soon lined up with them. The Lawther working party roundly rejected that health-damaging levels of lead in the blood came mainly from vehicle exhausts, only to find that blood-lead levels fell 70 per cent after lead-free petrol was introduced. The Southwood committee of BSE scientists insisted in 1989 that scrapie in cattle could not cross the species barrier, only to find by 1996 that it did just that.

Much more subtle, and more serious, is the manipulation of science for wider political or commercial purposes. Scientific conclusions don’t usually emerge innocently as an individual’s inspired discovery, but out of a process dependent on financial pressures.

Under Margaret Thatcher funding of science became much more subservient to business interests. The stranglehold of the large companies is illustrated by the debate on GM crops. The science is owned by a tiny number of large companies. Much of the research is dubbed commercially confidential and never published if it conflicts with the company’s interests.

Companies have learnt that small investments in endowing chairs or sponsoring research can produce disproportionate payoffs in generating reports, articles and books which may not reflect the public interest, but certainly benefit corporate bottom lines. The effects of corporate generosity can be corrosive. Other universities eye the donor as a potential source of funds and try to ensure nothing is said which might jeopardise big new cash possibilities. Academics who raise embarrassing questions — who is paying for the lab, how independent is the peer review, who profits from the research, is the university’s integrity compromised — soon learn that keeping their heads down is the best way not to risk their careers, let alone future funding. The message is clear: making money is good and dissent is stifled.

The scientists staffing the official advisory committees and government regulatory bodies have, in a significant number of cases, financial links with the industry that they are supposed to be independently advising on and regulating. A recent study found that of the five scientific committees advising ministers on food safety, 28 of the 70 committee members investigated had links with the biotechnology industry, and at least 13 were linked to one of the Big Three — Monsanto, Zeneca or Novartis. Nor is this an accident. The civil servants who select for these bodies tend to look for a preponderant part of the membership, and particularly the chairman, to be “sound” — safely relied on not to cause embarrassment to the Government or industry if difficulties arise.

Regulatory bodies such as the Committee on Safety of Medicines are widely seen as too close to industry. Key members have a record of consultancy, research and employment by pharmaceutical companies. Last month Richard Brook, chief executive of Mind, resigned from an expert working group on antidepressant drugs after being pressurised for months not to reveal the review’s findings that one drug, Seroxat, was being prescribed by doctors in an unsafe dose and that the regulators had been aware of this for more than ten years.

Science can be only trusted if it is pursued with the most rigorous procedures that guarantee freedom from commercial and political bias. If the Government truly wants independent research, it has to be prepared to pay for it, not lay down, as it has, that 25 per cent of finance for publicly funded research should come from private sources, thus forcing the universities into the hands of corporate sponsors. The Government should also require that members of its advisory committees or regulatory bodies should not have any current or recent financial or commercial link with the industry concerned. And contributors to scientific journals should be required to disclose current and prior funding sources, so that conflicts of interest can be taken into account.

Tony Blair should recall the words of Winston Churchill: “Science should be on tap, not on top.”

Michael Meacher was Minister for the Environment, 1997-2003