The Science Media Centre exists -- so we are assured -- to assist in the dissemination of important science-based news stories. According to its web site, its main priorities are: - Working with journalists and providing them with information about science and its related disciplines; making it easier for them to get access to the best science and scientists when science stories are making the headlines. - Working with scientists, engineers and other experts, and supporting them to engage with the media; creating more opportunities for them to get their voices heard on the big science, health and environment stories of the day.
Note that the emphasis here is on reporting and effective presentation. However, there has been great concern in the past about SMC's rather blatant bias (for example, in favour of GMOs and nuclear power and against precaution) and its overtly political agenda. Now we see another example of SMC actually creating a news story out of nothing, and then pushing it aggressively, while remaining discreetly in the background. This is not impartial reporting -- it is secretive and non-attributed promotion and media spin with a political and commercial objective. in other words, the scientific agenda is being manipulated.
The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh has been undertaking desk and laboratory research into GM animals for some years, and in October 2012 a number of Roslin researchers (including Prof Bruce Whitelaw) were involved in the writing of a paper called "Efficient TALEN-mediated gene knockout in livestock" (Carlson et al. 2012) (1). As fas as we know, this paper received very little attention. What we do know is that within the scientific community there is grave concern about the supposedly precise nature of the genetic engineering methods proposed, about the danger of off-target effects, and about the huge failure rate in bringing viable animals into the world. Cloning is almost certainly involved, but not mentioned. However, all that is apparently of no concern to the SMC. in recent weeks the GM animals supposedly being created in the Roslin Institute have shot into media prominence in a manner that signals careful timing and orchestration.
ON 15th April SMC organized a "media briefing" in London called "Food for the future: the potential of GM animals" (2) at which presentations were made by two Roslin staff members: Professor Helen Sang and Prof Bruce Whitelaw. This was not an open media event -- it was for invited journalists only. Afterwards the Farmer's Guardian linked the development of GM chickens and pigs to the global food crisis( which doesn't actually exist, but comes in handy whenever the SMC and its friends in the media want to push the merits of GMOs.) Quote: "Speaking to journalists in London this morning (Monday), Prof Sang said there was a 'real technical push' to develop animals 'which cannot be achieved by conventional breeding'. She added the 'societal push' of food security meant producing animals which could be more disease resistant and grow bigger and stronger, faster, was more important than ever." (This is all utter nonsense, but let it pass for the moment.....)
On the following day there was a media blitz relating to "Piglet 26" (born in August 2012) including coverage by Nick Collins in The Telegraph and by Hannah Devlin in The Times. The Independent mounted an online poll designed to register public approval for the exciting new "gene editing technique" by which the pig was created, and which is claimed to be easier, more precise and effectively harmless. The pig was claimed to be resistant to disease -- hopefully making it even more acceptable to the public. The poll indicated -- no doubt to the chagrin of the Independent and the SMC -- that 60% of respondents were still disinclined to like GM animals specifically and GMOs in general. As far as they were concerned, the label "Frankenpig" was an appropriate one.
Undeterred, SMC tried again. On 28 April there was another media blitz, with articles appearing simultaneously in the Sunday Times, Independent, Telegraph, Independent, and Sun. The wording in all of these articles suggested strongly that they had all come from the same press release or press briefing, embargoed until that date. The stories all related to the "precision breeding" of GM cattle without horns -- heavily promoted on animal welfare grounds. There was no independent peer-reviewed science to which the science correspondents of the newspapers could refer -- so the stories were all based upon a blind acceptance by journalists and editors of the material fed to them. (Think for a moment about the sheer hypocrisy involved here. When Prof Seralini and his team announced the results of their long-term feeding trial and published their paper showing negative health effects associated with GM corn and Roundup herbicide (in September 2012), they were pilloried by SMC and much of the UK media for failing to release their full data sets and failing to allow "advance reading" of their article (3). This time, with respect to the GM piglet and the hornless GM cattle, there was no article and no data -- and a slavish repetition of points from the SMC hand-out with no investigations as to sources or reliability.)
So what we have here is a cynical media campaign -- involving selected friendly media -- based upon the flimsiest of "GM good news" stories involving a piglet born 8 months ago and some GM hornless cattle that have not yet progressed beyond the drawing board. There has been no reference to the ethical issues involved, the actual NEED for these GM creatures, or the social context in which 70% of the British public are opposed to GMOs whether animal or vegetable.
So why now? The natural time for both of these "GM animal" stories would have been September or October 2012; but readers will recall that just then the SMC was working flat out to discredit Seralini and his colleagues, to manufacture a "scientific furore" and to promote the lie that the "scientific community" was involved in a universal condemnation of the results of the long-term feeding trials conducted in France. You do not have to be a genius to be aware of the fact that just now Owen Paterson, the Tory-led Government, the biotechnology multinationals and the US administration are mounting a huge pro-GM push at the moment, justified (so they seem to think) by the need for industrially-produced GM food (both plant and animal) to feed a growing world population in an uncertain future. This is not about science or even ethics. This is about politics and power (4) -- and the SMC is, as ever, heavily involved in promoting the interests of its paymasters.