6 February 2003
SUPPRESSING CRITICISM - SCIENCE’S BIGGEST TRAGEDY
"Whether it is space, nuclear energy, and even genetic engineering, the facts pertaining to human health and safety are being increasingly swept under the carpet."
Suppressing criticism: Science's biggest tragedy
By Devinder Sharma
Kalpana Chawla is dead. And so are the six other brave astronauts. While it may take some time for the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to know the real cause behind the space shuttle Columbia's break-up as it was re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, one this is certain. The astronauts paid a price for the new phenomenon of 'suppressing' scientific facts.
What began as a seemingly harmless trend to promote and score political points in the later part of the 20th century, has now become a global phenomenon. Whether it is space, nuclear energy, and even genetic engineering, the facts pertaining to human health and safety are being increasingly swept under the carpet. And if you were to stand up and question, you are dubbed as a luddite and part of the anti-technology brigade, and very conveniently shown the door.
It happened in the case of the ill-fated Columbia. Newspaper reports say that NASA had last year removed five members of a nine-person panel and two of its consultants after they warned that the shuttle faces safety troubles and had therefore asked for an increase in the budget to correct the problem. A sixth member, retired three-star Admiral Bernard M.Kauderer, was so upset at the sacking that he quit the group. The panel, an advisory group of industry and academic experts, was charged with monitoring safety at the NASA.
NASA's efforts to 'suppress' criticism finally resulted in the shocking tragedy. For stifling criticism, which could have resulted in a timely and life-saving correction, the seven astronauts paid the price with their blood.
Suppressing facts is the new international scientific mantra. Point a finger to the technological flaws and the danger it poses to human health and environment, the government, academia and the scientific community rises in anger. The media is quick to join the chorus debunking criticism as 'illogical' opposition to technological advance. "There is risk in everything that we do," is the common refrain. "You can be knocked down by a speeding car, the roof can fall on you while you are sleeping, and many a times you can die if you fall from your bed," scientists and technologists will tell you. And in today's world, where the satellite television brings the images of terrorist crime, and death almost every hour to our bedrooms, people have begun to accept accidental death as an unavoidable part of the development process.
This has essentially been brought about by the increasing intolerance of the science administrators towards uncomfortable questions of human and environmental safety. Modern science has therefore buckled under commercial obligation to brush aside healthy criticism. The machination of blocking facts are so strong and powerful that even Columbia's tragedy has failed to open up an international debate on the ethics, morality and the criminal intentions of suppressing technological and scientific facts. The increasing inability of scientists to stand up and question is surely the greatest tragedy of the modern times.
The new frontier of science is not only confined to a search of the extra-terrestrial or the use of technology in space application. The cutting-edge technology that is now being commercially promoted relates to the genetic manipulation of the living organism, including humans. Dubbed as 'substantially equivalent' to the naturally occurring plants and organisms, genetically modified plants are being pushed in the name of eradicating hunger and malnutrition. And still more importantly, the impression that is being given is that these plants and food products are perfectly safe for human health and environment. Any untoward criticism is therefore unjustified. Those who raise questions become victim of a universal slander and smear campaign, perpetuated by an agitated scientific community.
Highly acclaimed scientific bodies and organizations, and that includes Britain's Royal Society and a number of Nobel laureates, have succumbed to industry's pressure to uphold the untested claims of human and environmental safety of genetically modified plants. In reality, an American court has found serious flaws in the safety regulations carried by the premier Food and Drug Administration of the United States (FDA). A court case filed by the Alliance of Bio-Integrity in May 1998 in Washington DC, "demonstrated the irresponsibility of FDA policy and the falsity of some of the major claims made in support of GE foods." And yet, the world is being increasingly told that since the FDA has done the safety testing there is 'no need to reinvent the wheel'.
During the course of the hearings, internal files of the FDA showed that 'the predominant opinion of the agency's own scientific experts was that GE foods have unique health risks'. These experts had repeatedly cautioned their superiors about these risks. Numerous statements from FDA's own scientists "warning" about unintended harmful side effects and "criticizing" the lack of scientific basis for the FDA's policy were brushed aside. FDA's own team of experts had informed their seniors (all political appointees) about the kind of tests required to know for instance the impact on human health and safety based on long-term toxicological feeding studies, was invariably turned down. The bureaucrats had a mandate to promote the genetically modified products and they did it regardless of the human health concerns.
By still not initiating any action against the FDA, Steven Druker, Executive Director of Iowa-based Alliance for Bio-Integrity, says the court had failed to mention that these administrators had not only disregarded this key information but had lied about it in their formal policy statement by claiming: "The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way." However, the case did expose the FDA's fraud and revealed the unsoundness of its policy and the irresponsibility of its behavior.
It will require the sacrifice of another Kalpana Chawla to unravel the mysterious silence on the part of molecular biologists to point a finger at the suppressed facts. By sweeping the human and environmental safety concerns away from public glare, the scientific community is doing a great disservice to mankind. Its failure to stand up and question the validity of claims being made by the biotechnology industry and the cover-up provided by regulatory authorities in the USA, European Union, China, Argentina and now in India, awaits a human disaster. It will then be too late. #
(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. www.dsharma.org )