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The "Academic-Industrial-Military Complex" Engineering Life & Mind

The "academic-industrial-military complex" is shaping every aspect of our lives, beginning with the kind of science and scientific research that gets done and gets reported. We are not only losing our right to self-determination and self-sufficiency, but most seriously of all, our right to think differently from the corporate establishment. The suppression of scientific dissent threatens the survival of science and endangers lives.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Jonathan Matthews call for open debate on the scientific evidence of hazards inherent to genetic engineering. The future of food security and the survival of our planet are at stake.

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Suppressing dissent

During most of the period of the Cold War, nuclear physics was the big science that got the lion’s share of public funding. Within the past two decades, giant corporations have been increasingly dictating the kind of science and scientific research that gets done, mostly to fatten themselves at our expense, so they can all the better exploit us for further gain.

Under the banner of the ‘free market’ and ‘free choice’, we are losing our right to self-determination and self-sufficiency in every way: our food, health, social mores, the way we choose to live and most seriously of all, our right to think differently from the corporate establishment.

The suppression of scientific dissent is one of the most serious and visible signs of the "academic-industrial-military complex" at work. It goes against the very grain and essence of what science is: the open, disinterested enquiry into the causes of natural processes.

In the summer of 1998, senior scientist Arpad Pusztai from the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, UK, told the public that feeding young rats GM potatoes appeared to harm them. He lost his job. His wife, biochemist Susan Bardocz, and collaborator, Stanley Ewen, were both retired early subsequently.

Pro-biotech scientists and Fellows of the Royal Society - the top society of scientists in the UK – were unanimous in their condemnation. Pusztai had violated every cannon of scientific rectitude by ‘spilling the beans’ before the scientific findings were peer-reviewed and published, causing undue public alarm and damaging the biotech industry. The Royal Society issued a hasty official report discrediting his findings.

Suppression is particularly fierce when it comes to getting adverse results published, as Pusztai and Ewen discovered when they submitted a paper to The Lancet. The anonymous review process took a year. On the eve of the paper’s eventual publication, another prominent Fellow of the Royal Society threatened The Lancet’s editor in an attempt to block it.

For every Pusztai, there are at least ten similar casualties that did not get public airing, add to that numerous cases of censorship from employers or even self-censorship.

The Institute for Professional Managers and Specialists carried out a survey of scientists working in government or in recently privatised laboratories. One-third of the respondents had been asked to change their research findings to suit the customer’s preferred outcome, while 10% had pressure put on them to bend their results to help secure contracts.

In Britain’s handful of top research universities, dependence on private funding often amounted to 80-90% of the total research budget. The four unions representing scientists and technical staff launched a charter, which says that research must be guaranteed "by peer review, open publication and by autonomy over a significant proportion of its resources".

But the Royal Society, the UK Parliament and the House of Lords, merely got together with a transmogrified PR company, Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), funded by the food industry, and the Royal Institution - with a long and distinguished history of presenting science to the public - to issue a set of ‘guidelines’ for journalists and scientists, that are clearly aimed at preventing public report of ‘adverse’ findings.

A new Science Media Centre (SMC) was announced in January 2001, supported by Science Minister Lord Sainsbury, to be housed in the Royal Institution, now headed by Baroness Susan Greenfield, Oxford neurobiologist well known for popularising brain science, who is also an advisor to SIRC. It’s aim is to help journalists get their stories right on controversial issues such as "animal research, cloning and genetically modified food".

In June 2002, the SMC was caught trying to suppress the BBC drama, "Fields of Gold", that attempted to draw attention to the hazards of horizontal gene transfer – the transfer of GM DNA to unrelated species – with particularly serious consequences.

It is notable that in the entire Pusztai episode, corporate business has been quite invisible; academic institutions are all too willing and ready to punish offending academics themselves, and not at all ashamed to be seen doing so. Though there have been unconfirmed rumours of phone calls from Monsanto to the Rowett Institute.

In my own case, it was indeed a phone call from Brian Cass, chief of Huntingdon’s Life Sciences that resulted in my being hounded out of the university I have worked in for nearly 25 years.

Environmental journalist George Monbiot gives more examples in his book, Captive State, The Corporate Takeover of Britain of similar treatments universities mete out to academics daring to dissent from the corporate agenda or to criticise it.

Corporate takeover of science brokered by governments

Governments have sold science and scientists to the corporations. The sell-out began under the Conservative Government. The 1993 white paper on science, Realizing our Potential, intended to "produce a better match between publicly funded strategic research and the needs of industry". The research councils, which distribute most of the public money, would be obliged to develop "more extensive and deeper links" with industry, and "to recruit more of their senior staff from industry".

The Labour government extended those reforms enthusiastically. Its 1998 white paper on "competitiveness" launched a ‘reach-out’ fund to encourage universities to "work more effectively with business". The choice of a biotech investor and food industrialist, Lord Sainsbury, as Science Minister within the Department of Trade and Industry is more than just emblematic of the emerging corporate culture.

In a recent Financial Times article, Lord Sainsbury cites the following statistics: British universities spun off 199 companies in 2000, up from an annual average of 67 in the previous five years and a mere "handful" before that. UK’s ratio of companies to research spending is now more than six times higher than the US. "It’s a dazzling record," says Lord Sainsbury, and laments the nation’s failure to celebrate such a "stunning change in the entrepreneurial attitudes of our universities".

The key to delivering Lord Sainsbury’s redefinition of "good science" as commercial productivity is the higher education funding councils.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research council (BBSRC) was established in 1994 to replace the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC). Whereas SERC’s mandate was to advance science of all kinds, the BBSRC’s purpose is "to sustain a broad base of interdisciplinary research and training to help industry, commerce and Government create wealth".

Thus, it comes as no surprise that the BBSRC, the main funding body for Britain’s academic biologists with an annual budget of £190m (in 2000), is chaired by Peter Doyle, the former executive director of the biotech corporation, Zeneca; nor that its main committees are stuffed with corporate representatives: Syngenta (sits on 3), AstraZeneca (on 2), GlaxoSmithKline (3), Pfizer (4), Unilever (2), not to mention Genetix plc, Lilly and Merck Sharp & Dohme. No wonder that gene biotechnology has been swallowing up the lion’s share of the research funds.

In January 1999, the BBSRC set aside £15m for "a new initiative to help British researchers win the race to identify the function of key genes". In July the same year, £19m was to be spent on new research facilities to "underpin the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture in the UK" through "work on genetically modified crops". In October, £11m was allocated to projects that would enable the UK "to remain internationally competitive in the development of gene-based technologies". Every year, the Council gives more than £10m in grants to John Innes Centre in Norwich, the genetic engineering institute which houses the Sainsbury Laboratory and has a research alliance with Dupont and Zeneca, and latterly, Syngenta, although Syngenta has just announced it is pulling out.

In 2000, an extra £1.9 billion was to be committed to "health genomics research" over the next five years. That was in addition to the Government’s projected spending of £675m on university infrastructure through the Science Research Investment Fund, which includes high tech facilities for studying genes and proteins. All that was supposed to help industry discover new lucrative drugs.

And even now, as the dream of miracle drugs is receding and the biotech corporate empire shows all the signs of collapse, the Blair government is propping it up with even more subsidies. It has just introduced a further new tax credit for research and development: "a £400 million boost to innovation, affecting £11 billion of expenditure by 1,500 large companies in the UK".

In the United States, successive government have brokered the corporate take over of science in a similar way, going back to the 1862 federal legislation that created the land-grant universities. But this accelerated with the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, which for the first time, allowed universities to patent the results of federally funded research. The Business-Higher Education Forum, a coalition of corporate and academic leaders, and similar groups lobbied to get universities joined up with the marketplace.

Since then, the US Congress has passed numerous other laws to cement university-industry ties, including generous tax breaks for corporations investing in academic research. From 1980 to 1998, industry funding for academic research expanded at an annual rate of 8.1%, reaching $1.9billion in 1997, nearly 8 times the level 20 years ago.

Another factor driving academic institutions into the maws of big business is the cut in public research budgets, which enables corporations to buy up departments and whole institutions for new ideas and prestigious labour at bargain prices.

Postdoctoral fellows earn as little as $15,000 a year working, at times, round the clock. Projects in a university lab typically cost about half what they would at a drug company. And the public has greater faith in research at universities than in private labs.

The Swiss drug giant Novartis is paying $24 million over six years to the University of Maryland’s Psychiatric Research Center for access to its brain tissue bank and one of its labs.

The University of California at Berkeley, similarly, had suffered decades of financial cutbacks when Novartis agreed in 1998 to pay $25 million to be allowed to license up to about one-third of the research results. Along with that, the company gains the right to sit on a committee deciding on the research of the department.

When Berkeley plant geneticists Ignacio Chapela and David Quist uncovered the transgenic contamination of maize landraces growing in remote regions of Mexico and reported it in Nature in November 2001, they were subjected to vicious attacks and intimidation rivalling the Pusztai episode in Britain, orchestrated from within their own Department, and aided and abetted by Monsanto.

Novartis also pays $20 million a year for some research at the Scripps Research Institute in California and over the past decade has paid up to $100 million for research at the Harvard-affiliated Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

Science behind closed doors

The academic-industrial complex is not open to public scrutiny.

At the 2000 World Economic Forum in Davos, Bruce Alberts, President of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), gathered behind the scenes with a group of a dozen other presidents of national science academies to create an International Academy Council (IAC) to provide "impartial scientific advice" to governments and international organizations on issues such as genetic engineering, threatened ecosystems, and biodiversity.

Bruce Alberts also chairs The National Research Council (NRC), which has a full-time staff of 1000 and a $200 million annual budget. Through the NRC, the NAS conducts studies and prepares about 200 reports annually, largely under contract to federal agencies.

In flagrant violation of the rules of open government - the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act - NRC committees and panels meet secretly in closed sessions, and persistently fail to require that their membership reflect balanced representation of divergent interests and viewpoints.

The NRC biotechnology panel was set up in March 1999, with disproportionate representation of experts directly linked to industry. The panel’s executive director, Dr. Michael Phillips, was secretly negotiating for a senior position in the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), and joined the industry some 3 months later.

When the NAS report on GM crops was released in April 2000, BIO – the industry’s lobby - was delighted, claiming in a press release that GM foods "are thoroughly tested and safe". Critics, however, rejected the report. US Senator Dennis Kucinich called for the study to be scraped because the panel was "tainted by pervasive conflicts of interest".

Less than a year later, the NAS itself criticised the federal reviews of GM crops carried out by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), branding it "superficial", placing too much emphasis on protecting corporate trade secrets, and lacking in both transparency and rigour. It called on the USDA to seek evaluation by scientific experts outside the agency and solicit greater input from the public.

Corporate science kills

Corporate control of biomedical research is particularly strong, as that’s where huge profits are involved. The pharmaceutical industry has been the most profitable industry by a wide margin. And the federally funded National Institutes of Health may be the drug industry’s biggest benefactor. This government agency alone will spend more than $23 billion on research in 2002.

Biotech drug giants like AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmith Kline and Eli Lilly are funding annual meetings of professional groups such as the American Psychiatric Association, saturating the conference with corporate logos and free gifts and worse, paying for sessions "to control which scientists and papers were presented and to help shape the presentations".

Meanwhile, academic institutions have been getting into an orgy of incestuous relationships with industry, scientists find themselves testing drugs they have invented, sitting on committees approving the drugs and holding financial stakes in companies that stand to profit from them. Corporate science is endangering lives.

In 1999, teenager Jesse Gelsinger died in a gene therapy trial at the University of Pennsylvania. Government regulators cited the researchers for numerous safety violations. The scientist overseeing that trial and the medical centre had a financial stake in the therapy tested. Subsequent public enquiry turned up more than 650 adverse events and 7 other deaths associated with ‘gene therapy’.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. A litany of misconducts has come to light since.

Doctors at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre allowed a cancer experiment to go on for years, even though patients were dying at a higher rate than with standard therapy. The Centre and some of its physicians had financial stake in the treatment.

A University of Pittsburgh scientist funded by several drug companies was accused in a lawsuit of manipulating a study of children’s ear infections and contributing to the dangerous overuse of antibiotics.

The FDA reprimanded a Tufts University researcher for improperly treating a cancer patient with a gene therapy that may have caused his tumour to double in size. Both the scientist and a Boston medical centre held large stake in the company developing the treatment.

On 19 July 2001, the US government ordered a suspension of all clinical trials in Johns Hopkins following the death of a previously healthy 24 year old volunteer in an asthma experiment.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham carried out tests on cancer patients for years, with a drug, BCX-34, they knew to be useless. But they had financial stakes in a company making the drug, so they falsified the data to manipulate the market.

But the governments are far from impartial in imposing the necessary regulation. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stands accused of withholding tens of thousands of documents on hundreds of side effects and dozens of deaths linked to xenotransplantation.

The FDA also re-approved the drug alosetron (Lotronex), belonging to GlaxoSmithKline and prescribed for ‘irritable bowel syndrome’ and related disorders, which was withdrawn because its efficacy was marginal, and it was linked to severe complications including deaths. There were 113 reports of serious complications of constipation, 84 of ischaemic colitis, and six of small bowel ischaemia. This accounted for more than 100 cases of hospitalisations, 50 cases of surgery and at least 7 deaths; and as the FDA staff point out, only 1 to 10% of such events are reported.

A senior scientist on the FDA’s advisory committee had decided to speak out, warning of more deaths if the drug is re-approved.

The drug giants fund FDA to the tune of $162m in 2002, almost half of the cost of reviewing drugs. In return FDA must meet tighter deadlines and improve "responsiveness to communication with industry sponsors during the early years of drug development", with disastrous consequences.

Thirteen dangerous prescription drugs have been withdrawn from the market in the last decade, but not before hundreds of patients died and thousands injured. Yet no congressional committee has investigated why the FDA approved these dubious medicines or why they were not withdrawn right away.

In May 2002, Congress opted instead to renew the arrangement that’s a major source of the problem.

Scientific journals closed to debate

Almost as a council of despair, the top biomedical journals announced in August 2001 that they would reserve the right not to publish drug company-sponsored research "unless the researchers involved are guaranteed scientific independence". A week later, Britain’s top science journal, Nature, said it expects all its authors to declare "any competing financial interests".

But the journals are failing in another important role, to encourage open scientific debate. Top journals such as Science, Nature and New Scientist have grown dependent on corporate advertisements and sponsorship, often of whole series of pro-biotech papers. They have been too reluctant to give voice to scientists dissenting from the corporate view, while undue and apparently unlimited access to their pages is granted to pro-biotech scientists and other supporters of the industry.

The journal Nature, having published a paper from the two Berkeley scientists reporting on the transgenic contamination of Mexican maize landraces (see above), succumbed to pressure from the pro-GM lobby and ‘retracted’ the paper several months later, a move that was unprecedented for a paper that was neither wrong in its major findings, nor fraudulent, and their findings have since been confirmed.

Nature has just also rejected a paper from Mexican government scientists, which confirmed the Berkeley scientists’ results.

These journals have turned down nearly all attempts to get the hazards of horizontal gene transfer debated within their pages, even when one of us was openly attacked there.

When the matter was raised in another journal, in a series of paper on the potential hazards of the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) promoter, Nature Biotechnology published a long report attempting to discredit one of us in the worst style of gutter journalism. The editor gave a very grudging right to reply after a delay of three to four months, when the same offending journalist was allowed to have yet another go (see Nature Biotechnology April, 2000).

The papers in question warned that the CaMV promoter makes the GM DNA extra unstable and prone to horizontal gene transfer. Recent findings have vindicated those claims, especially in relation to the transgenic contamination of Mexican landraces, where the CaMV promoter appeared to have been "fragmenting and promiscuously scattering throughout the genome". But denial, misrepresentation and suppression continues, especially over horizontal gene transfer.

Britain’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been given the responsibility of overseeing the safety of GM foods, headed by Oxford zoologist Sir John Krebs, a prominent member of the SIRC that produced ‘guidelines’ aimed at suppressing adverse reports on GM. He himself has made no secret of his pro-GM, anti-organic stance.

Despite having stacked the odds against detecting horizontal gene transfer in the FSA’s own commissioned research, a positive result was nevertheless obtained: transgenic DNA, eaten in GM soya flour in a hamburger and milk shake, was found transferred to the gut bacteria of human volunteers. The FSA immediately attempted to dismiss and downplay the results. One of us challenged the FSA and it has singularly failed to reply to the scientific criticisms.

‘National GM debate’ is a farce

There is still no open public debate on the abundant scientific evidence of actual and potential hazards of genetic engineering. The promised national GM debate in the UK is turning into a farce.

As its contribution, the government funded Natural Environment Research Council is sponsoring an online debate organised and hosted by Spiked, a website run by a group that is fanatically pro-GM. The views presented as part of the "debate" more than reflect that bias in a way that mirrors what the Government is doing on the national stage.

The Government’s "public debate" is happening in parallel with a scientific review and an economic cost/benefit study. The scientific review will be conducted by just three scientists, the avowedly pro-GM Sir John Krebs of the Food Standards Agency, the Government’s chief scientist and the chief scientific adviser of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

The cost/benefit study, carried out by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, has put out a "Scoping Note" for public consultation, which is little more than an excuse to present a mass of speculative benefits of GM crops. It has been universally condemned and dismissed.

Is the "academic-industrial-military" complex so corrupt that it cannot take real evidence into account, evidence indicating that the mammoth enterprise is financially, morally and scientifically bankrupt? And evidence that the hazards are inherent to the technology in all its current applications in agriculture as well as medicine? But beyond the corporate blinkers, citizens all over the world are rejecting GM, and many governments are already responding to widespread consumer boycotts and public demonstrations by tough biosafety legislations to ban or limit GM imports.

Here’s some of the latest news.

All wheat buyers in China, Korea, and Japan have announced they will not buy GM wheat that Monsanto is field-testing in Canada and the US, and planning to release commercially. The rejection rates from Taiwan and South East Asia are 82% and 78% respectively.

Farmers and retailers in Switzerland have agreed never to produce or sell GM food.

European Union member states have refused to reconsider lifting their GM moratorium that has been in place since 1998.

Brazil’s front-running presidential candidate wants to keep Brazil GM-free.

The elite French three-star chefs have launched a crusade for a Europe-wide ban on GM crops and livestock.

Let’s have a really open debate!

Scientists must be allowed to debate the scientific evidence freely and openly without fear of recrimination. The future of food security and the survival of our planet are at stake.

For an un-expurgated account of the risks of GM, read "Goodbye GMOs" series, Science in Society 2002, 16, now out. Spread the word by bulk-purchasing this issue at cost and distributing to your policy-makers and your local community. Details here.

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