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News and Comment

Making Sense of GM - responses

6 April 2009

Response from Sense About Science to Private Eye in relation to a comment published in the Books and Book Men section:

Response from Sense About Science to Private Eye in relation to a comment published in the Books and Book Men section:

In Books and Book Men you invited readers to conclude that Sense About Science had removed the name of Dr Andrew Cockburn from additional contributors to Making Sense of GM for some untoward reason. He was not a part of the working group but someone we sought additional contributions from. In his case, one of a handful who we lined up to look through the document once it was drafted. Pre-empting this, his name was added to the draft. We circulated that draft nearly three weeks later than we’d hoped to, as is so often the way. It turned out that he was away and so we received no comments from him. If we had, we’d have been happy to include him - why wouldn’t we? It appears to be some years since he left Monsanto and, with the difficulties of working out how particular technologies were developed, he might have been able to provide interesting insights. We were sorry he couldn’t. Making Sense of GM is a very open document - unlike other short guides or leaflets, it includes the names of people consulted even over small matters. It is also a document that points out continually that GM is just a technology among others. It is rather critical of the damage caused by concentration of the technology in large companies, e.g. to orphan crop research. We think scientists should be talking about their work in this area, but some people clearly don’t. 

Response from Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science, to the THE article by Zoe Corbyn “Charity guide criticised for not declaring GM interests: Sense About Science pamphlet failed to list contributors’ links with industry”.

“The headline implies that our charity has GM interests, which it does not.

The statements in the sub headline and article do not reflect the information, provided by ourselves and the John Innes Centre, about the list of ‘vested interests’ from GM Watch. That list relied on tortuously indirect connections, inaccurate information and information that was many years out of date; it included such examples as a contributor who until 1995 was VC of a university that has at some time had some unspecified research funds from industry. After receiving our information, Zoe Corbyn has made the general allegations anyway, supported only by the example that Professor Vivian Moses chairs CropGen, a group of individuals who respond to questions on biotechnology. Since CropGen advises that none receive remuneration or research funding from biotechnology companies, the vested interest remains unclear. Zoe Corbyn describes Vivian Moses having a ‘directorship’ - this is made up.

The description of Sense About Science, that it “claims to” promote scientific reasoning in public discussions, is gratuitously rude and no reason is given for sneering in this way.

The description of John Innes Centre as receiving funding from biotechnology companies was mischievous. Zoe Corbyn was given a detailed breakdown of the JIC’s funding, which as with all the other publicly funded research institutes has a wide range of research partners beyond research council funding, and included many from conventional and from organic industry such as the Soil Association.

The article misunderstands the convention and spirit of declarations of interest. If the article is part of an argument that tenuous connections should be considered, then we would have to consider our contributors as having much stronger ‘links’ to conventional and organic agriculture than to biotechnology.  I wonder what would happen if articles in the Times Higher were investigated similarly: individuals could only be quoted with a list of their links to learned societies and academic institutions and all the industry links that these in turn have?

How does any of this change the description of what genes do or what marker-assisted breeding is? If your correspondent had highlighted some part of our guide that is wrong or a result of an individual contributor’s alleged ‘links’, then we could have investigated (we keep quite comprehensive records of changes to drafts). As it was, she sent through a copy of an embarrassingly poor ‘scientific’ response from GM Watch with references to several unpublished papers dating back to 1992.

Of all publications, we would have expected the Times Higher to be more sophisticated about GM, rather than to allow itself to be drawn into the idea that GM should be treated differently to any other type of science, as though it has some mythical properties. GM is not a principle around which we can gather in camps. It is a plant breeding technique. The guide was a response to questions that our charity receives and to the frustration of many scientists that public sector work is not well understood and has been sidelined by the focus on crops of interest to industry. It explains very specifically that GM is not where all plant breeding is heading.

The guide is written by a large group of leading scientists, including the heads of the UK’s plant research institutes, with a wide range of research interests, and some farmers and other contributors to ensure it drew on the broadest base of knowledge.  The material it covered was fascinating and shows how much of the research is missing from public discussion. What a pity the article had nothing whatsoever to say about this.”


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