for more on the various lobby groups mentioned in this article see http://www.lobbywatch.org
"I'm all for free speech in debates on science and technology, but the fact that this Pythonesque entryist clique can get so much money from large foundations and trans-national corporations, while also getting invited to major policy meetings by government departments, doesn't say much for how successful we've all been at trying to make debates about society and science a little more down-to-earth. The next time I'm at a meeting where one of these comedy characters stands up, I promise to remember to ask them which perpetrator of genocide the People's Front is supporting this time."
Embrace democracy, not the People's Front
Beware the Pythonesque entryist clique, warns Tom Wakeford
Science & Public Policy - a publication of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, www.the-ba.net
Something odd is happening at science policy meetings these days.
Every time a reasonable old soul turns up to suggest that everyday people are actually quite sensible in their attitudes towards science and technology, out comes a response from a stranger at the head of the table. 'No,' they say, 'the public don't know enough. Listening to their ignorance and prejudice will lead to the end of civilisation.'
'Who is that?' you nudge the person next to you. 'Oh, that's the Institute of Ideas / Sense about Science / Spiked person,' comes the reply. 'Can't remember their name - they're new here.'
You'll remember that sketch from Monty Python's Life of Brian:
Brian: Are you the Judean People's Front?
Reg: F* Off!
Reg: Judean People's Front?? We're the People's Front of Judea! Judean People's Front, pah!!.
The sketch was inspired by student politics and might as well have been written about Science's newest Front. They began as the Revolutionary Communist Party, groupings that appeared at fringe of campus life in the late 1970s under Frank Furedi, who now teaches sociology at the University of Kent. They can normally be picked out at a meeting not by Jesus sandals or "We Love Stalin" badges but their particularly sharp suits (men) or bright pink lipstick (women).
The RCP were funny sorts of communists, many of whom didn't really believe in communism. They used to have a magazine called Living Marxism, which changed its name to LM in the 1990s. They subsequently spawned a network of political activists who eulogise technologies like genetic engineering and reproductive cloning.
As a PhD student, I responded to an invitation to speak at a meeting at Kent seemingly organised by the Genetic Interest Group, but in fact masterminded by their close associates, LM. Shortly afterwards I was shocked to see that LM had published 'The picture that fooled the world', an article that argued that the journalists working for TV news broadcaster ITN had deliberately misrepresented an image that came to symbolise the horror of the Bosnian war, an image that was supposed to show emaciated Muslim prisoners in a Serbian prison camp, Trnopolje.
The article claimed the Muslims in the picture had, in fact, come to a place of refuge and that they were being protected, not mistreated, by the Serbs.
LM was forced to close down after losing a libel case brought by the ITN journalists it had accused of fabricating evidence. It emerged during the trial that, contrary to LM's claims, 'Trnopolje was a camp where Muslims were undoubtedly imprisoned, and that many were beaten, tortured, raped and killed by their Serb guards.'
But in the run up to the case the LM-ers successfully capitalised on the poor regard in which Britain's libel laws are held, by promoting themselves as the victims of ITN's 'deplorable attack on press freedom'. They held a highly successful three-day conference, called 'Free Speech Wars'.
The best known of the three outfits is the Institute of Ideas. It says its mission is 'to expand the boundaries of public debate by organising conferences, discussions and salons, and publishing written conversations and exchanges.' It has drawn in to its events not just well-known names but leading British cultural and scientific institutions, like the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Institution. It has been equally successful at attracting commercial support from major corporations. A Genes and Society Festival in London in April 2003, for example, was funded by Pfizer. Also thanked for its assistance was CropLife International - a 'global federation' led by chemical manufacturers BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta. Recently the Institute obtained a large grant from the Wellcome Trust.
I'm all for free speech in debates on science and technology, but the fact that this Pythonesque entryist clique can get so much money from large foundations and trans-national corporations, while also getting invited to major policy meetings by government departments, doesn't say much for how successful we've all been at trying to make debates about society and science a little more down-to-earth. The next time I'm at a meeting where one of these comedy characters stands up, I promise to remember to ask them which perpetrator of genocide the People's Front is supporting this time.
Dr Tom Wakeford is Research Associate at the PEALS Institute, University of Newcastle. Additional research by Jonathan Matthews of www.lobbywatch.org