A new report commissioned by Prime Minister David Cameron suggests that GMOs have now been shown to be safe and that the United Kingdom may need to grow them in order to rely less on imports.
Since consumer campaigning got GMOs labeled and crop restricting implemented in the United Kingdom, Cameron will likely have a hard time convincing UK consumers that all is well. However, Cameron is getting help in that quest from a little known group called the Science Media Centre (SMC), which helped release the report to great fanfare. The Guardian and The Independent published prominent coverage of the report, and it was featured by the BBC. The Independent and BBC coverage were both entirely uncritical, quoting the scientists handpicked by the SMC for its reporters’ briefing. The Guardian report was less glowing, but still quoted the SMC scientists and buried the reactions of critics below the fold. None of them mentioned that the report briefing was held by the SMC.
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SMC calls itself an independent media briefing center for scientific issues. Critics, however, question its independence from the GMO industry — despite the group’s statement that each individual corporation or other funder may only donate up to five percent of the group’s annual income — and warn that the organization is headed across the pond to the United States to provide more GMO spin here.
What Is the Science Media Centre?
SMC was conceived in 2002, and enjoys close links with the British government. It is now based at the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest non-profit foundations ($22.5 billion in total assets as of late 2012), founded on the fortune of American-born pharmaceutical magnate Sir Henry Wellcome, whose drug company has since evolved to become GlaxoSmithKline. The Wellcome Trust gives the group more than the five percent of annual income at which other institutional funding is capped.
SMC received 34 percent of its nearly £600,000 in funding from corporations and trade groups for the fiscal year that ended March 2013, according to its website. Its current funders include BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta — three of the world’s biggest pesticide and GMO corporations — as well as a number of agrichemical trade groups like CropLife International.
Although it initially promised to “provide an anti-GM scientist and a pro-GM scientist, a pro-legalisation of cannabis scientist and an anti-, etc, etc.,” SMC’s record since then has shown otherwise.
For instance, SMC had great success in getting its prepared quotes into international media in late 2012, when it spearheaded the attack on French scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini, whose November 2012 research paper found serious health problems — notably, tumors — in rats fed “Roundup-Ready” Monsanto GMO corn, as well as in rats fed low doses of the herbicide Roundup itself without the GMO corn.
SMC fed journalists quotes from other scientists attacking the study. Its director Fiona Fox told the Times Higher Education she was proud that SMC’s “emphatic thumbs down had largely been acknowledged throughout U.K. newsrooms: apart from the Mail, only The Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times covered the story in their print editions — and both used quotes supplied by the Science Media Centre.”
The story was covered in the United States, but even the New York Times summarized a quote spoonfed by the SMC saying that the numbers of animals in each test group — approximately the same number that had been used in the seven studies of its kind since 2004, including a study commissioned by Monsanto — was too low to draw firm conclusions.
After initial resistance, the publishing journal retracted the study. A Reuters article on the retraction used two quotes from an SMC “expert reaction.” Later, over 150 scientists sent a hard-hitting letter to the journal calling the retraction an “attack on scientific integrity.”
Media Critic Calls SMC An “Unbalanced” Cheerleader
SMC “has cast biased press briefings such as one on GMOs, funded by Monsanto and invited unwitting and time-starved journalists,” according to Connie St. Louis, the president of the Association of British Science Writers, writing in Columbia Journalism Review. Since SMC’s opening in 2002, St. Louis writes, “The quality of science reporting and the integrity of information available to the public have both suffered, distorting the ability of the public to make decisions about risk. The result is a diet of unbalanced cheerleading and the production of science information as entertainment.”
SMC director Fiona Fox told the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), “[W]e are not about to reinforce the ‘he-said-she-said’ false balance by trawling our universities for climate skeptics or plant scientists who take issue with GM” — although scientists have contended that there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety, and there is substantial research showing potential risks of the pesticides of which most GMOs are engineered to withstand heavier applications.
Spin Expert Says SMC Promotes Profitable Science
Sociologist David Miller, co-founder of Public Interest Investigations/Spinwatch and editor of Powerbase, a wiki that monitors power networks, told CMD, “The problem is that SMC pretends it’s promoting the best science, but in fact it promotes a certain kind of science — those kinds of science that corporations and governments stand by in the area of science policy and want to see developed in terms of markets, like cloning, GMOs, and to some extent pharmaceuticals as well. These are areas where there’s a huge amount of potential profit to be made. Once it steps from supporting science to supporting science policy, SMC becomes political, even though it pretends not to be.”
Fox told CMD, “[W]e cover all areas of science that are newsworthy and in the media headlines. The science stories we work on are the controversial messy science stories that hit the headlines — that is the criteria — nothing to do with the potential of specific areas of science to make a profit.” SMC has recently covered climate science extensively.
Critics Say SMC “Hand-Picks” Scientists Without Disclosing Industry Ties
Claire Robinson, co-editor of GMWatch — an organization seeking to counter the political power and messaging of the GMO industry and its supporters — called SMC “extremely dangerous because it manages to convince the public and the mainstream media that it is an independent voice of science, whereas actually it is a small selection of industry-friendly scientists who are hand-picked.” In fact, as GMWatch has noted, past SMC press releases have featured quotes from GMO industry-funded lobbyists, but listing them only as “Reader in Ecology” and “Visiting Professor of Biology” without noting their lobbying ties. “From my point of view,” Robinson said, this is “disingenuous and misleading.”
Jack Heinemann, a geneticist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and a former staff fellow at the U.S. National Institutes of Health who specializes in risk assessment, has found himself and his scientific analysis the target of the “rapid responses” of SMC franchises in New Zealand and Australia. He found out after one attack that a number of independent scientists had written to SMC New Zealand. They said they wanted their views pubished in a follow-up rapid response, but according to Heinemann, “they were all rebuffed and told that SMC was no longer interested in the story, and they didn’t need their comment, but thank you very much.”
According to one newspaper, SMC New Zealand’s director Peter Griffin said of these comments that they “were sent to us several days later, by which stage we decided that the best course of action, to avoid confusing the public any further through a war of words between scientists, was to wait. . .”
Heinemann noted that these SMCs also don’t publish conflicts of interest, listing scientists’ public university positions but not their industry ties. For example, a SMC criticism of a peer-reviewed study he published quoted Professor Peter Langridge, a University of Melbourne senior lecturer in food technology and microbiology. It did not note what local newspaper The Press later found out: that “his research centre receives significant funding from global GM product developer DuPont, amounting to between A$3 million (NZ$3.66 million) and A$5 million a year.”
Heinemann told CMD, “Scientists know they have conflicts of interest when they receive large monetary gifts or research contracts from developing technology or have an entrepreneurial stake in technology.” He acknowledged that it’s “become hard to find a scientist who doesn’t have such entrepreneurial interests or who has the ability to fulfill career objectives without appearing to be industry-friendly.” But he said of the SMCs, “If you can’t find scientists who don’t have conflicts of interest, what is your purpose? What story are you really trying to bring to the media if you can’t verify the authority of a viewpoint as being objective? Then you’re really some kind of propaganda channel and should declare that you are promoting industry-biased and -promotional science rather than declaring that you stand aside of the vested interests” of the scientists quoted.
Responding to a question about disclosing conflicts of interest, SMC’s Fox said of the original UK group that it “does not believe that ‘links’ to industry automatically equate to a compromise in the quality or integrity of a piece of science.” While also acknowledging the difficulty of finding scientists without industry ties, Fox told CMD, “We have generally taken the view that the main responsibility for investigating and exposing any significant conflicts of interests should lie with the journalists reporting science stories.” She noted that a “more proactive COI [conflict of interest] policy” is being developed and reviewed.
Fiona Fox: “One of the Most Powerful People in Science”
Fiona Fox directs the SMC and is “becoming one of the most powerful people in science,” says critic Connie St. Louis. She came to her current position from a career in public relations and has a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.
Under the pseudonym Fiona Foster, in 1995 Fox claimed that the 1994 mass slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu by the Hutu majority in Rwanda was not genocide in an article in Living Marxism, an originally far-left publication that became decidedly libertarian. Living Marxism/the LM Group continued to deny atrocities, later denying Serbian war crimes, as The Gaurdian reported. The publication was closed in March 2000 following a libel lawsuit brought by British news agency ITN.
Are the Scientists Independent?
The recent UK GMO report was publicized as “independent.”
But as The Guardian pointed out, the report’s lead author, Professor Sir David Baulcombe of the University of Cambridge, “receives research funding from Syngenta and is a consultant for Syngenta” (as noted in a Science Magazine editorial, but not noted in the GMO report). Syngenta is one of the “Big 6” multinational pesticide and GMO corporations. Another report author, Professor Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, founded the GM patent-holding company Mendel Biotechnology, a GMO company that does contract work for Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and BP, among others.
Critics like Claire Robinson of GMWatch claim that none of the report’s authors are independent of GMO industry funding, and say “their claims should be treated with the same scepticism we would apply to any sales pitch.”
SMC’s “Undesirable Influence on the News” Headed to the United States?
After SMC was founded in the United Kingdom, franchises operating under a “unified charter” were formed in other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan. SMC claims that there are “over twenty Science Media Centers around the world — either in operation or being established,” including the SMC of the United States, which is under development and scheduled to launch in about 2016, according to a recent article in Nature.
The geneticist Jack Heinemann believes based on his experience in New Zealand that “the SMCs are connected, and they are communicating and exchanging people. They have a particular corporate view of science that is largely uniform between them.”
In the United Kingdom, public protest and strict regulations have severely limited the growth of genetically engineered crops. The United States is the largest commercial grower of GMOs in the world, but recently there has been a grassroots movement to require labels on GMOs in food products. What would the role of an SMC be here?
Ivan Oransky, formerly head of the health team for the Reuters news agency in New York, said he worries that a U.S. SMC could end up having an “undesirable influence on the news.”