Inquiry urged into university biotech links
Red Pepper, 28 July 2003
The UK's largest collective of independent scientists is calling for an urgent inquiry into the links between the biotechnology industry and leading academic institutions.
Following a panel review arguing against the commercial licensing of GM crops in Britain, the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) has told Red Pepper that it is demanding a major probe to reveal the extent of biotechnological funding at British universities. According to Dr. Maewan Ho, chair and co-founder of ISIS, there has been a six fold increase in the number of companies forging links with British learning institutions in the last five years, a figure exceeding that of the United Sates.
Dr. Ho claims that most of the research departments in Britain's top universities are now heavily reliant on private funding, which she says, may typically make up 80%-90% of a department's annual budget. A survey for the Institute of Professional Managers carried out in public and recently privatised laboratories found that 1/3 of all scientists have been asked to change research findings to suit the customers preferred outcomes, whilst 10% had had pressure put on them to actually bend results in order to secure contracts.
Dr. Ho believes that all 'scientific' evidence coming out in favour of GM food should be independently assessed to expose the vested interests of biotech industries in British University laboratories.
Biotechnological research is the scientific field most heavily invested in, with GBP1.9 billion ploughed into 'Genomix' research in 2000 - research carried out to help industry discover potentially lucrative new drugs. This industrialisation of the university sector is actively encouraged by the Science Minister Lord Sainsbury, who also happens to be a biotech investor. When asked of this forging trend he was quoted as saying, "it's a dazzling record ... reflecting a stunning change in the entrepreneurial attitudes of our universities"
Whilst delving into the secretive world of biological experimenting on animals, Dr. Ho was hounded out of her job, after 25 years teaching at the Open University, following pressure put on her department by Huntingdon Life Sciences. In an interview with Red Pepper, Dr. Ho reveals a shocking picture of the current state of scientific research in British universities: "For every whistle-blower punished by industry that reaches the press, there are ten more whose contracts are quietly terminated".
Not only are the agendas of the departments now run for industry she claims, but furthermore the funding bodies are made up of industry members. The Biotechnology and Biological Research Council, or BBRSC, is a case in point. The council is responsible for the allocation of all postgraduate funding in the field of biotechnology, and also funds 98 universities.
Red Pepper can reveal that of the fifteen board members, the five whose details are openly known have strong links with GSK, AgroEvo UK, Dupont, Unilever, Nestle, Rhone Poulenc, Pfizer and Dyfed Seed, many of whom have been accused of human-rights and environmental abuses. Furthermore, the chairman of the board, Peter Doyle, is the former Chief-Executive of Astra-Zeneca, one of the biotechnology companies lobbying hard to allow for GM seed commercialisation in this country.
Anyone wishing to use public money to research into possible drawbacks of GM are thus prevented from doing so through the vested interests of the grant awarding body.
Furthermore, a leaked document sent from an employee of a laboratory which had received a BBRSC grant, exposes a contract forcibly signed by all those receiving grants, openly forbidding any "involvement in political controversy on biotechnology sciences" which might mean publicised concern over GM food. Any such involvement would lead to dismissal, being sued for breach of contract or even facing a court injunction to stop any further comments being made public.
Attempts by unions representing scientists to change the secretive wording of this contract to allow for more transparency, have been actively dismissed by the pro-GM members in the Royal Society; a body with the necessary publicly-funded muscle to police the scientific world, but dependent nonetheless on millions of pounds worth of strings-attached contributions from companies such as GSK and Rhone-Poulenc, both of whom have massive financial interests in Biotechnology.
"It's disastrous, turning taxpayers’ money into corporate medicine," says Dr. Ho. "I'd love to just hide in my lab and do science, but we at ISIS feel we have to do something, the situation is so serious. People just don't realise how important science is in dominating world policies. If governments are too stupid or too weak to fund independent research into the food we eat and the environment we live in, then we are lost."