This letter has been sent to the President of the Royal Society, in response to a statement recently made to the press which suggests that that august institution is still more interested in political and commercial expediency than in scientific ethics.
Sir Paul Nurse
The Royal Society
Carlton House Terrace
London SW1Y 5AG
29th May 2012
Dear Sir Paul,
BLATANT GM HYPOCRISY
You will recall that we wrote to you early in 2011 about the manner in which the GM science community is bringing science into disrepute, and taking you to task for your own misrepresentation of the GM science debate, in the context of a BBC TV programme (1). Instead of addressing the issues we raised, we were saddened that you chose to ignore them. That is ironic, given your ongoing protestations about "informed public debate."
On 27th May, in the context of its ongoing campaign in support of GM crops, the Guardian newspaper (2) carried the following:
Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society, said on Friday: "Scientific discoveries can be unsettling and their application for societal benefit complicated to implement. That is why we must have informed public debate on these issues, free from hype and fear. We need to do scientific experiments to find out if genetically modified crops are safe and if they deliver genuine public benefit. If they fail on either score, they should be put to one side. That is why the trial at Rothamsted should be allowed to go ahead."
That was, of course, an understandable attempt on your part (no doubt with the encouragement of a rather unsavoury organization called Sense About Science) (3) to claim the moral high ground in the context of the Rothamsted GM wheat trial and the protest by the group calling itself "Take Back the Flour." However, we should like to remind you that in February 1999 you were one of the signatories to a letter written by 19 Fellows of the Royal Society (4) which had the clear intention of discrediting the GM safety research done by Dr Arpad Pusztai and his colleagues at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, destroying his reputation as an eminent scientist, and terminating an ongoing laboratory project just as effectively as you might have done by trashing a GM crop. You also had the clear intention of intimidating the Editor of the Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, into refusing publication of a note by Ewen and Pusztai which had successfully gone through a stricter than usual peer review process (5). Your actions at the time were, and remain, reprehensible, since Pusztai's only "crime" was to have discovered that GM potatoes damaged the health of the animals which consumed them -- which was not what the scientific and political establishments of the day wanted to hear. You and others decided that shooting the messenger was more convenient than listening to the message.
So on the one hand you demand "informed public debate... free from hype and fear" with respect to the GM wheat trial, while on the other hand you do all in your power to shut off informed discussion of the Rowett Institute findings and to vilify the lead researcher involved. You now say "we need to do scientific experiments to find out if GM crops are safe", having quite cynically played a key role in shutting off just such experiments in 1998-99. And we need not remind you that those experiments have never been repeated or "improved". We wonder why?
We have also noticed that one of those who joined the "Royal Society rottweiler pack" in hunting down Arpad Pusztai in 1999 was none other than Prof John Pickett, who just happens to be the lead researcher on the GM wheat project at Rothamsted. His role in placing pressure on Richard Horton at the time was, in many respects, quite indefensible.
Sadly, there is only one way to describe your role in this carefully orchestrated campaign in support of GM crops and foods: blatant hypocrisy.
Dr Brian John
1. Open Letter dated 26th January 2011, to Sir Paul Nurse from Dr Brian John: THE GM SCIENCE COMMUNITY IS ITS OWN WORST ENEMY
After prompting, I received a reply in mid-March which addressed not one of the issues raised.
2. ANTI-GM PROTESTERS KEPT FROM TEARING UP WHEAT CROP BY POLICE, The Guardian, UK, by Shiv Malik, 27 May 2012
Sense About Science has a history of uncritical support for the GM industry, and has used colourful and inflammatory language in its attempts to portray anti-GM campaigners as violent and vicious vandals with no respect for science or for the law. It is therefore not surprising that the "Dontdestroyresearch" campaign should have been run on the SAS website, encouraging people to sign up for a generalist or loaded statement which was then used -- fraudulently -- to demonstrate supposed support for a specific and highly controversial GM wheat trial.
5. Ewen SWB, Pusztai A. Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. Lancet 1999; 354: pp 1353-1354.
The Editor of the Lancet described the Royal Society's attempts to intimidate him prior to publication as "breathtaking impertinence."