Oxford University's Prof Chris Leaver says the recent letter to Tony Blair from '114 eminent scientists' has stopped the anti-GM bandwagon in its tracks. It has certainly led Blair to publicly reaffirm his support for GM.

Here is a profile of the lobby group behind the Blair letter and behind the campaign to paint critics of GM as "violent" and as fixers of the Public Debate. It also has projects aimed at attacking Pusztai yet again and sucking in yet more public money into GM research to fill the void left by the retreating corporations. Its principal collaborators include the Royal Society and the John Innes Centre.
Sense About Science - A GM WATCH profile
[for all the links]

The UK lobby group Sense About Science says it is 'A Trust to encourage a rational, evidence-based approach to scientific and technological developments'.

Its exact launch date is unknown but the domain name was registered in March 2002.

Within months it had begun to promote its point of view on GM crops to parliamentarians and the media, and had raised  funding from 'corporations and learned societies'.

An item on the Sense About Science website also refers to a  'Sense About Science network of scientists and NGOs'. Clues to the network's constituent members would seem to be provided by the organisation's officers, staff, trustees, advisors, funders and project particpants.

Chairman: Lord Taverne
Vice Chairman: Dame Bridget Ogilvie
Director: Tracey Brown
Other staff: Ellen Raphael

Both Brown and Raphael worked for the London-based PR  company Regester Larkin till shortly prior to joining Sense About Science. Both are also part of the extreme libertarian network behind LM, Spiked, and the Institute of Ideas, to all of which Brown and Raphael have contributed. The domain name for the Sense About Science website - - was registered by Rob Lyons, who is also web master for Spiked.

Brown and Raphael are also key players in another of the network's front groups, Global Futures. The phone number for  Global Futures is the same as that for Sense About Science.


Most of the members of Sense About Science's advisory council and board of trustees are well known GM proponents. In the list below we have added relevant institutional and/or NGO connections in brackets:

Vivian Moses (CropGen, Scientific Alliance), Michael Wilson (Scientific Alliance, HRI), Michael Fitzpatrick (LM, Spiked, Institute of Ideas), Brian Heap (Royal Society), Peter Marsh (SIRC), Phil Dale (John Innes Centre), Peter Lachmann (Royal Society, Academy of Medical Sciences), Julian Ma (Academy of Medical Sciences ),Matt Ridley (links to IEA, Julian Morris etc.), Chris Leaver, Derek Burke, Alan Malcolm,  Roger Turner, and Janet Bainbridge.


Funding is said to derive from 'corporations and learned societies'. Funders include the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) , the 'life science' company Amersham Biosciences plc, BBSRC, BP plc, GlaxoSmithKline, ISAAA, John Innes Centre, The John Innes Trust, Mr M. Livermore (a biotech PR consultant who formerly worked for DuPont and has links to Scientific Alliance and IPN), the biopharmaceutical company Oxford GlycoSciences plc, Dr M. Ridley (links to IEA, Julian Morris etc.), and the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC).


Notable among the participants in the half dozen or so Sense About Science projects launched to date are the Royal Society (peer review project) and the John Innes Centre ('public good' plant breeding project). The Royal Society, in particular, appears to have gone to great lengths to support Sense About Science's first project, on peer review. Its former Vice President and its former Biological Secretary are among a number of leading Fellows on its advisory council and board of trustees.


Influencing the debate

Sense about Science was created just in time for the UK's official GM Public Debate.

In October 2002 its director, Tracey Brown , attended a meeting about the design of the Public Debate. She was invited as part of a group of eight 'social scientists familiar with the GM debate and public engagement processes'. In fact, although Brown has a masters degree in the social sciences, her area of specialism was the sociology of law.

Interestingly, Brown is not the only LM contributor whose advice was sought during this period. Bill Durodie describes himself as an 'advisor' to the Prime Minister's Cabinet Office Strategy Unit study 'The Costs and Benefits of Genetically Modified (GM) Crops', which formed a parallel strand to the Public Debate in the government's assessment of the issue of GM crop commercialisation.

The GM Public Debate was originally expected to begin in Janaury 2003 although it was, in fact, delayed. Coincidentally, a series of reports which were favourable to GM appeared in the media in January.

These reports seem to have emanated from either the Royal Society, Sense About Science or people closely associated with the two organisations. All were marked by inaccuracy and what appears to have been an attempt to deliberately misinform. (see Strange Bedfellows, The Ecologist, April 2003)

For instance, reports by the BBC's science correspondent Pallab Ghosh at the end of January stated that the British Medical Association (BMA) would be undertaking a new report on GM. The BMA's previous report had been highly critical of the rapid introduction of GM crops and food and had called for a moratorium. Pallab Ghosh implied it was Sense About Science that had now persuaded the BMA to undertake a review of its policy. Sir Peter Lachmann , who is on the advisory panel of Sense About Science was quoted as saying that the research that the BMA's 1999 report had been based on had been 'discredited'.

However, the BMA issued a press release the same day saying its review was entirely routine and that the BBC's account of the reasons for the review were 'wrong'. It also quoted the Head of BMA Science and Ethics as saying, 'The claim that we have been persuaded by the organisation Sense about Science to review our policy is simply wrong.'

In autumn 2003, after the Public Debate had shown an overwhelming level of public opposition to GM crop commercialisation, Sense About Science launched a new media campaign.

On the eve of the publication of the results of the government's GM farmscale evaluation (FSE), which showed a generally discouraging environmental impact from the GM crops trialed, an article, based on the preliminary findings of a survey organised by Sense About Science, of institutes carrying out GM crop trials appeared in The Times under the headline GM vandals force science firms to reduce research. Sense About Science's director, Tracey Brown , was quoted as saying, 'The burden of trying to organise the research community to pre-empt and protect from vandalism is potentially disastrous.'

Articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) and elsewhere went still further, suggesting the GM Public Debate had been 'hijacked' by 'activists' and that GM plant researchers were being subjected to physical and mental abuse, leading some to take jobs abroad. One THES article, headlined Scientists quit UK amid GM attacks, included claims of intimidation by Chris Leaver (a Sense About Science trustee) and Mike Wilson (a Sense About Science advisory panelist).

In his response Blair emphasised his government's support for biotechnology research and his recognition of its economic value (Blair backs UK biotechnology, THES, 14 November 2003)

Another article, GM debate cut down by threats and abuse, sounded an even more sinister note. It spoke of ' the increasingly violent anti-GM lobby', ' growing levels of physical and mental intimidation', ' hardcore tactics of protesters', ' intimidation by anti-GM lobbyists... mirroring animal-rights activism', 'increasingly vicious protests', '"a baying mob" of anti-GM activists', 'a string of personal threats', etc.. It also contained a call for 'the government to intervene to protect researchers.'

Despite its use of such words and phrases as 'increasingly vicious', 'violent', 'hardcore tactics', 'physical... abuse', and so on, the article failed to cite a single instance of a researcher, or anyone else, being assaulted by anyone from the 'anti-GM lobby'. Indeed, the only specific threat of any seriousness referred to in the article was a bomb hoax said to have occurred some five years earlier, in 1998.

The scientists claiming intimidation were once again Chris Leaver and Mike Wilson but they were joined this time by Tony Trewavas , a highly vocal and often controversial supporter of GM, and co-author with Leaver of several letters and papers rebutting criticism of GM (eg Backlash for GM dissenters ). Like Chris Leaver, Trewavas is on the governing council of the John Innes Centre, where Mike Wilson used to work. Together with Wilson, Trewavas is also part of the pro-GM lobby group Scientific Alliance .

A month after this series of articles began with an piece in The Times, another article appeared there by the Chairman of Sense About Science, Lord Taverne . The headline was, When crops burn, the truth goes up in smoke. Taverne's article spoke of farmers and researchers being terorised and 'anti-GM campaigners' adopting 'the tactics of animal welfare terrorists'. No specific examples were given, yet again, other than the bomb hoax. Taverne's article admitted that environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth 'may condemn violence' but concluded, none the less, 'The anti-GM campaign has become a crusade. Its champions... have become eco-fundamentalists, followers of a new kind of religion... But when campaigns become crusades, crusaders are more likely to turn to violence.'

It is ironic, given such repeated, and unsubstantiated, attempts to associate those opposing GM crops with violence, and even terrorism, that the staff of the lobby group which Taverne chairs are associated with a political network, and have contributed to a publication (LM/Living Marxism ), which has at times refused to condemn, or has sought to deny, acts of violence of a truly horrific character (e.g. acts of terrorism by the IRA, the genocidal massacres in Rwanda, Serb nationalist atrocities in the former Yugoslavia).

Fiona Fox and Tony Gilland, who both sit on a Sense About Science Working Party (see below), are also both LM contributors. Indeed, Fox penned the notorious LM article that denied the Rwandan genocide. She also wrote articles that provided a platform for those opposing the peace process in Northern Ireland. In these she described convicted terrorists as 'prisoners of war'.

A letter to the Prime Minister

At the end of October 2003 a letter was sent to the British Prime Minister from 114 UK scientists complaining about the lack of government support for GM during the UK's public debate. They complained that the 'genetic engineering of plants has been reduced to a matter of consumer preference.'

The letter attracted considerable media coverage. Pallab Ghosh covered the news for the BBC while an article in The Times said, 'More than 100 leading scientists have made a once-in-a-generation appeal to Tony Blair to save British science'. The Times piece also referred to the signatories as '114 eminent researchers'. It quoted the lead signatory Prof Derek Burke as saying that the signatories provided 'a measure of the concern that is out there. A cross-section of the British scientific community feels that evidence that has been carefully and painfully collected is just being swept aside' (Scientists test Blair and find him wanting)

The letter was followed by a parliamentary question and letter to Tony Blair, asking when he would respond, from the chair of the parliamentary science and technology select committee, Ian Gibson. A similar question was asked in the House of Lords by Baronness Susan Greenfield . SignatoryChris Leaver told the Times Higher Education Supplement, ' The letter seems to have succeeded in shaking the creeping view - especially in government - that "we probably have to let the campaigners have this one" and hope that things might change in years to come. Also, it has given the government something to respond to other than its more regular critics in this debate, creating some unease about the state of the debate and whether we have the full picture.' (Scientists await PM answer on GM, THES,7 November 2003)

Media reports on the letter initially stated thatDerek Burke was the man behind it. The THES, for instance, reported, 'The letter was written and coordinated by Professor Derek Burke, the former chairman of the UK government's GM advisory committee.' (SCIENTISTS ATTACK UK GOVERNMENT'S 'SILENCE' IN GM DEBATE, THES, 4 November 2003)

But an article published in the THES just a few days later (7 November) told a very different story: 'The letter was coordinated by Sense About Science'. And the THES Leader on the subject did not even mentionDerek Burke but referred rather to, 'The new organisation behind the letter, Sense About Science'. The editorial concluded, 'Sense About Science is entitled to demand that both their [the government's] words and their deeds are more forceful.' (Leader: Science deserves greater support, 7 November 2003).

The parliamentary questions from Gibson and Greenfield also appear to have been organised by Sense About Science.Derek Burke, the letter's lead signatory, is on the advisory council of Sense About Science, and a significant number of the other signatories are connected to Sense about Science either via the advisory council or its board of trustees. These in turn connect to the 'Sense About Science network of scientists and NGOs'. For instance, ProfessorVivian Moses who is on the advisory council is also the chairman of the biotech-industry funded lobby group CropGen.Phil Dale from the advisory council works at theJohn Innes Centre with its history of multi-million pound ties ties to the biotech industry. More than 20 of the signatories had past or present connections to the JIC.

This also reflects the fact that far from representing, as Derek Burke told The Times, 'a cross-section of the British scientific community', the signatories were predominantly plant scientists. The THES noted this in its editorial, concluding that Sense about Science needed to start reaching out to the wider scientific community.

The claims in The Times that the signatories were 'leading scientists' and '114 eminent researchers' also appears to be misleading. Take, for instance, signatory 'Dr Martin Livermore Plant Scientist ; Independent Consultant'. Rather than earning his living as a plant scientist, Mr Martin Livermore trained as a chemist and now runs an agri-food PR consultancy, prior to which, he did PR for the biotech giant DuPont. It seems surprising that Sense About Science are unaware of any of this as they include 'Mr M. Livermore' on their website amongst their financial contributors.

The Peer Review Project

Sense About Science has also established a special Working Party on how to solve the problems of scientific peer review which, includes 'an investigation into the social consequences of unfounded research claims'. This was said to have as its target audiences, amongst others, parliamentarians, Government and policy bodies, as well as the media. It is due to report early in 2004.

The project enjoys strong support from the Royal Society. It not only meets at the Royal Society but is chaired by the Vice President of the Royal Society, Sir Brian Heap. The Society's Biological Secretary, Patrick Bateson, has been assigned to liaise with the Working Party as has Bob Ward, a Senior Manager for Press and Public Relations at the Royal Society. Several members of the Working Party are leading Fellows of the Royal Society, including Professor Sir Peter Lachmann FRS.

Tracey Brown is not the only one on the Working Party with strong LM connections. Another is Tony Gilland, an LM and Spiked contributor, as well as the science and society director of the the Institute of Ideas (I of I). Another member is Fiona Fox who heads the Science Media Centre which operates out of the Royal Institution. Fox contributed several articles to LM, including highly controversial material on Ireland and the Rwandan genocide. Fiona Fox's sister, Clare, heads the Institute of Ideas where Gilland works.

In a letter toTracey Brown last November, the Wellcome Trust sets out why, after careful consideration, it is declining to be part of the Working Party or to provide any funding. Amongst the series of concerns listed is the fact that, 'The proposed make-up of the Working Party is extremely narrow'. The Working Party, the lettter says, 'runs the risk of being seen as a closed and defensive strategy', and the letter talks of the project being based on 'many assumptions' and very little 'direct evidence'.

'Public Good' Plant Breeding

Early in 2003 Sense About Science organised an event on 'Public-Good Plant Breeding: what are the international priorities?', in association with the Natural History Museum, the BBSRC and the John Innes Centre. It was addressed by MS Swaminathan, Peter Raven and Phil Dale . According to Sense About Science, 'This initiative is now being taken on and developed in the UK by the national plant research institutes with ongoing input from the Sense About Science network of scientists and NGOs.'

The project appears to be aimed at raising more public and foundation money for the introduction of plants developed through biotechnology into the developing world. The John Innes Centre would certainly benefit greatly from such an increase in funding, particularly given the diminishing investment coming from the biotech industry, as with the recent pull out from the JIC by Syngenta part way through its £50m investment programme.