10 April 2003
LORD MAY IN THE GUARDIAN - MOMENT OF TRUTH?
Moment of truth?
There was a letter in the Guardian at the weekend from the Godafther of British GM, Derek Burke, squealing with delight over their new Thursday 'science' pages and a rabid piece they'd published by Matt Ridley.
This Thursday the Guardian provides a platform for Lord May...
EXCERPT: "Will the companies that have sponsored the [GM farm scale evaluation] research objectively take note of any negative results? Will groups like Greenpeace, the members of which actively set about destroying the plants involved in the farm scale evaluations, impartially assess any positive results? And will the Government allow a full and proper debate about the results among all stakeholders, before making decisions about the future commercial planting of GM crops? For the answers to these questions, we can only wait and hope." Hope NOT presumably in the Royal Society's case, given their record of dishonesty, threats and spin with regard to this issue...
Lord May also expects us to believe that the fact that it is an RS journal that will be publishing this research is nothing to worry about - the journal is completely independent. Curious then that the Minister of the Environment in answering a Parliamentary Question below says that it was not the journal's editor but Lord May's deputy, the Vice President of the Royal Society who replied on behalf of the journal. The Vice Presient of the Royal Society, Sir Brian Heap, has consistently been at the heart of the Royal Society's dubious activities in this area - see: Strange Bedfellows
Joan Ruddock: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when she and her officials have (a) telephoned and (b) written to the Royal Society during 2003 concerning publication of "The Farm Scale Evaluations with GM Crops"; and what was discussed. 
Mr. Meacher [holding answer 7 April 2003]: ...On 27 February 2003 the Vice President of the Royal Society wrote to the Secretary of State acknowledging that the farm-scale evaluation papers had been received from the research consortium and giving an indication of the likely timing of publication should the papers be accepted. The Secretary of State responded on 4 March 2003 thanking him for this information.
Moment of truth for GM crops
Bob May explains how the results of the first field trials will be weighed up by scientists
Thursday April 10, 2003
GM crops will be back in the news with a vengeance later this year when we learn whether the first results of Britain's three-year farm scale evaluations are sound enough to appear in a scientific journal - and after that, whether the government is going to allow these crops to be grown commercially.
One problem for the government is that few people outside the scientific community seem to be fully aware of the process through which these trials will be assessed, before those decisions are made.
Today, for that reason, the Royal Society - one of whose journals is responsible for the initial process of scientific evaluation - will publish full details of how it's all going to work.
GM technology offers us the opportunity to ramp up the intensification of agriculture, with the benefit to humans of not sharing our crops with weeds and pests. This also has the cost - already evident from conventional intensification of agriculture in the UK - of diminishing biological diversity and increasing the potential for ever more "silent springs".
However, GM technology, if appropriately used, could offer the chance of a doubly green revolution, in which we grow our food efficiently, but in ways that work with the grain of nature rather than wrenching the environment to our crops with fossil-fuel subsidised fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.
A moratorium on the commercial planting of GM crops is currently in effect in the UK. In 2000, the UK Government announced, in conjunction with commercial developers of GM crops, a three-year research programme - the farm scale evaluations (FSEs) - to study the effects on some species of wildlife of the way weed-killers are used on herbicide-resistant GM maize, oilseed rape and beet. The government stated that the moratorium would not be lifted until the results of the FSEs were known.
An area much greater than the total land area of Great Britain has been under cultivation with GM crops in the United States, Canada, China and elsewhere, for several years, with no adverse effects having yet been identified, whereas benefits from reduced pesticide use have been demonstrated. Even so, the special nature of the British countryside with its intimate patchwork of woodland and hill farms, cropland and pasture, meant most people agreed that the FSEs were necessary here.
The Government appointed an independent group, the scientific steering committee, to oversee the conduct of the FSEs. The committee undertook to have the results of the FSEs published in reputable peer-reviewed scientific journals and decided to submit them in two tranches, the first to include the maize, beet and spring-sown oilseed rape trials, the second to include the autumn-sown oilseed rape trials. The first tranche has already been submitted to Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. This is the world's longest established scientific journal and publishes sets of papers on single themes. The second tranche will be submitted to a journal later this year.
It is normal practice that, when a scientist completes a piece of research, he or she prepares a scientific paper describing how the work was carried out, what results were obtained and what conclusions and interpretations have been drawn. This paper is then submitted to a journal in the hope that it will be accepted for publication.
For all Royal Society journals, an editor, acting independently from the society's governing council and supported by an expert editorial board and referees, is responsible for managing the process of deciding whether a scientific paper should be published. The editor selects at least two referees to carry out a review of the paper.
These unpaid referees are contemporaries, or peers, working in an area of science relevant to the work described in the paper. In some cases, the referees could be be potential competitors or collaborators to the scientists being assessed. In this case, it is up to the editor to judge whether there could be any potential conflict of interest.
This process of peer review is the primary quality control mechanism applied to the results of new scientific research.
Each referee prepares a report about the paper under review to answer questions such as whether the appropriate methods were used (and are written up in a way that they could be replicated) and whether the results are accurate. The referees submit a report to the editor who then takes the decision about whether to accept the paper for publication, with or without changes and, if necessary, another round of refereeing.
Once a paper is published, the wider scientific community and other interested parties can consider whether alternative conclusions and interpretations are possible from the results described. To paraphrase Damon Runyon, rejection does not necessarily mean that a paper is wrong, and acceptance does not necessarily mean that it is right, but that is the way to bet.
Any individuals or organisations that have comments about the conclusions or interpretations of a published paper normally contact the authors, or their sponsors. Alternatively they can submit a new paper for publication in the same or another journal in that field.
In this way, the work presented in a published paper can be tested and challenged. This period when the scientific content of a paper can be considered also allows an opportunity for an open discussion about its further implications not only in science but also, for example, in policy-making.
Over the next few months, the main challenge to the stakeholders in the GM debate is whether they are willing to consider and exchange views about the results of the farm scale evaluations, if published in a journal.
Will the companies that have sponsored the research objectively take note of any negative results? Will groups like Greenpeace, the members of which actively set about destroying the plants involved in the farm scale evaluations, impartially assess any positive results? And will the Government allow a full and proper debate about the results among all stakeholders, before making decisions about the future commercial planting of GM crops? For the answers to these questions, we can only wait and hope.
Lord May of Oxford is president of the Royal Society, the UK national academy of science. Full details about the process for assessing the results of the FSEs are published on the web today at http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/gmplants/fseresults/
DEFRA web page on GM crop farm scale evaluations:
Royal Society pages on GM plants:
Friends of the Earth report on farm scale evaluations:
Food standards agency public forum on GM food: