Scientists fall out over GM research
A group of scientists is challenging the neutrality of a government-funded science agency. PAUL GORMAN reports.
Scientists are accusing the Science Media Centre of bias after it neglected to publish their views on a potentially risky food safety practice.
The government-funded agency has helped hundreds of the country's journalists communicate the trickiest science matters of the day to the public and promotes itself as "bias-free".
But a group of scientists is now questioning its impartiality on GM issues.
They want to know:
- Why the comments of two Australian scientists who made personal attacks on the credibility of the researchers were published online by the centre.
- Why their own subsequent statements supporting the controversial research were ignored by the centre and not posted on its website.
- Why the centre's web coverage of an agri-biotech conference last year only featured "selected" media items supportive of GM technologies.
The lead author of the recent research, Canterbury University geneticist Professor Jack Heinemann told The Press he thought the centre had "failed as an objective or evidence-based provider of information for the media on the issue of GM".
"The SMC terms of reference require it to be 'transparent', 'neutral in matters of policy and politics' and say 'it will not act in a way that could reasonably be perceived to be supporting or opposing . . . issues subject to political debate'.
"I would say that the Royal Society, which has funded the SMC, should be concerned with how the public will perceive the centre's performance on GM."
Green Party GM spokesman Steffan Browning said he had "watched with dismay" the centre "blatantly favour conflicted pro-GM positions when they compile or present comment on research".
"All of the expert commentary on SMC on GM is pro and this just doesn't reflect the research that keeps coming out showing there are risks.
"They write great material on a whole range of issues. On genetic engineering, however, we just aren't seeing the level of independence."
SMC manager Peter Griffin said the centre stood by its bias-free mission statement.
"The SMC does not privilege one view over another and is committed to a neutral role."
The centre receives core funding of $578,000 a year from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and is an independent business unit of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
However, Griffin said moves were afoot to secure funding from media companies, universities, Crown research institutes and private interests.
"It is certainly something that has to be handled carefully, but our sister organisations around the world deal with this generally by having a diverse range of funders."
The SMC published responses slamming the paper from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics chief executive, Professor Peter Langridge, and a University of Melbourne senior lecturer in food technology and microbiology, Dr David Tribe. They concluded the paper's authors were merely engaging in "scare tactics".
Langridge has since confirmed to The Press his research centre receives significant funding from global GM product developer DuPont, amounting to between A$3 million (NZ$3.66m) and A$5m a year.
This week, the SMC added some balance to the debate by posting the views of Otago University's Genetics Otago director Associate Professor Peter Dearden.
Dearden said the paper was a "good review" of some of the problems associated with dsRNA. He agreed with the authors that it was important proper risk assessments were done.
Heinemann has previously questioned why the SMC used Langridge and Tribe, pointing out their lack of expertise on the effects of dsRNA on human health.
The four scientists whose support for the paper has been kept from public gaze all sent emails to the SMC in the first week of this month.
Two - Dr Michael Antoniou of King's College, London, School of Medicine, and David Quist of the Norwegian Centre for Biosafety - received emails from SMC's Griffin saying it would not be doing anything with their statements until FSANZ responded on the matter.
Until then, it did not make sense to have "back and forth between rival scientists in the media, which just adds a lot of heat but not much light", Griffin said.
But Associate Professor Peter Wills of Auckland University and Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC both said they did not receive any acknowledgment at all.
Antoniou called the paper "comprehensively researched, referenced and scientifically logically argued", while Quist said it was a "constructive, well- evidenced argument" for further research on the safety of the molecules. Langridge's comments that "all dsRNA is safe because human beings eat dsRNA through foods is disingenuous at best, irresponsible at worst", Quist said.
It was like assuming hydrogen peroxide was safe to drink because it had the same chemical composition as water, ignoring that it had a different arrangement of atoms.
Wills considered the research "a first small step in reforming the thinking of old-time regulators" and a "wake-up call", while Gurian-Sherman said it made "reasonable suggestions for improvement" and should be welcomed "when there are potential consequences for human safety".
Antoniou, in a subsequent email to Griffin, said he had been left "somewhat confused" by the centre's approach. "You say it's best to wait for the FSANZ response . . . I'm not sure why in that case the comments of Professor Peter Langridge and Dr David Tribe have been posted in advance.
"It is important for the public to not only know where scientists agree but also where there is a lack of scientific consensus on a subject."
Antoniou said he had not received a response to that email from the SMC.
Griffin said the centre asked seven scientists on both sides of the Tasman who had done GM research to react to the Heinemann paper.
It did not solicit comment from the four scientists who complained because they had not had previous dealings with the centre.
"The comments 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 until FSANZ responded."
Griffin said the views of Langridge and Tribe were "considered to be fair comment and provided valuable context on the issue".
The centre had not sought balancing comments from the paper's authors to those views because the purpose of the "rapid reaction" section of the website was to "ascertain what the scientific community's reaction to new research is - not the researchers' [views] themselves". Regarding the Rotorua conference, the centre "rounded up coverage" that came out of a briefing for journalists and the event.
"We were not necessarily aware of, able to access or interested in featuring other coverage related to the conference," he said.
The centre did not receive direction on how to handle GM matters from its board, the Royal Society, the ministry or the Government, Griffin said.
The prime minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, said he held no concerns the centre was conflicted on GM matters.
"Newspapers are owned by businesses. How do they manage to maintain editorial independence? While I would be concerned if the SMC was dominantly funded by any vested interest group - be it an industry player or a lobby- style NGO - they do need sources of income other than government. Such support must be transparent, however."
The centre had made "an enormous difference" to the quality of science communication in New Zealand, Gluckman said.
THE ISSUE IN A NUTSHELL
The blind, peer-reviewed paper in Environment International that has sparked the furore was written by Canterbury University geneticist Professor Jack Heinemann and colleagues Judy Carman of Flinders University, Adelaide, and Sarah Agapito-Tenfen of the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil.
The researchers concluded that regulators, including Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), assume, and do not insist on evidence, that GM double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) molecules are safe for human consumption.
The modified material is present in products FSANZ has approved, which in New Zealand includes soybeans that could be in foods such as margarines, mayonnaise, chocolate and miso.
The concern is the molecules are not destroyed by heating and digestion. Recent research has shown they can then be absorbed into the human body, shutting down genes.
Nearly three weeks after the Heinemann-led research was highlighted in The Press, FSANZ has still not issued its response.
The Science Media Centre's website says its "aim is to promote accurate, bias-free reporting on science and technology".
Its terms of reference specifically state: The SMC will not take any particular standpoint or position on research, science and technology (R,S&T) issues.
The SMC will not lobby on behalf of the Government or the R,S&T sector.
The SMC will be neutral in matters of policy and politics.
The SMC will operate in a way that is responsive and transparent.