Independent scientists are a dying breed. All over the world, they are suffering persecution from an 'academic-industrial complex' bent on promoting corporate science and technologies that endanger lives and destroy the planet. We desperately need independent scientists if only to protect us from the failures, to anticipate the dangers and to repair the damages done. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho calls on civil society and government to take concrete measures to protect independent scientists, and to support independent science that benefit society as a whole rather than big corporations.
Associate Professor Ted Steele is internationally renown for pioneering work in the genetics of the immune response, which earned him the label 'neo-Lamarckian'. He has fought many battles against the old guard, who feel so threatened by his work that they have blocked his papers from publication, reviled him in public, and called on a book he published in 1980 to be "burnt". Nevertheless, his idea that individual immune experience can directly alter the genome is supported by his own experiments and by the work of others , posing a deep challenge to the genetic determinist paradigm that has promoted genetic engineering biotechnology since the 1970s and still, today, dominates the mainstream. Most of Steele's work was done over the past 16 years while he was a tenured staff member of the University of Wollongong in Australia.
But trouble brewed when the Australian government began to slash funding for research in 1996, in line with all other industrialised countries. This sent university managements into a cut-throat competition for corporate sponsorship. The University of Wollongong has been at the forefront of the drive to turn itself into a business enterprise. Support for Steele's basic research began to dry up. As in universities in other developed countries, staff were often hired not so much on their merit as scientist as entrepreneur, and poor students were taken in for commercial reasons.
For Steele, the last straw came when borderline pass students were upgraded against his recom-mendation, so that they could qualify for post-graduate funding. He refused to let that happen, and was dismissed without notice by his University's vice chancellor, Prof. Gerald Sutton, in February .
In the weeks following, massive support for Steele came from within the University, which soon spread to the rest of Australia and the world at large. The University of Wollongong was served with a Federal Court action by the Australian National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).
Prominent Australians sent an open letter to condemn the University, and thousands of messages of support came from academics and faculty unions around the world, calling for Steele to be reinstated.
In August, the Federal Court ruled against the University. It found Sutton's dismissal of Ted Steele had breached the conditions of the University's enterprise agreement with staff.
There were calls for Sutton to resign. But the university council met behind closed doors, and afterwards, a short press release was issued stating that ,
"The council had reaffirmed its commitment to abide by enterprise agreements with its staff. It noted the decision of the Federal Court. And it required Prof Sutton to continue to regularly inform members of the council regarding progress of negotiations between the NTEU and the university."
There was nothing to indicate that Ted Steele is to be reinstated.
Steele, who has not been paid for six months, has had to cash in his superannuation fund and to hire his own lawyer. "I am still in negotiations," Steele says, "The university will reinstate me but I will be immediately retried on the old allegations and a range of new ones. Straight out of a Kafka nightmare."
In fact, the University of Wollongong has appealed the Federal Court decision, which will mean another 6 months at least before there is any hope of a settlement. Steele's Union is finally calling for the University to reinstate Steele and to drop the appeal. But no reaction has been forthcoming from the University so far.
Steele is not an isolated case. The latest victims of corporate persecution are scientists at the top academic institutions in the United States . Dr. Steve Lagakos, Harvard University researcher, was running one of the largest trials of a new AIDS treatment. Three years into the trial, and he realised that the treatment was not working. He ordered a halt.
When Lagakos broke the news to the sponsors, Immune Response Corp., the company executives seemed to have accepted it. But as the months passed, they first suggested, then insisted, that Lagakos and his collaborator, Dr. James O. Kahn of the University of California, San Francisco, report that its therapeutic vaccine had some effect.
Lagakos and Kahn refused, and published their findings last November. In an unprecedented move, the company filed an arbitration claim seeking up to $10 million, alleging that the scientists have defamed its product. That product happens to be among an entire genre of AIDS vaccines that have been damned by other scientists for safety reasons (see "AIDS vaccines trials dangerous", this issue).
The company's actions may have been unusual, but efforts by industry to manipulate, delay or suppress the findings of university-based research are not  (see "Biomedical journals strike out for scientific independence", this issue). Many academic researchers, unlike Kahn and Lagakos, keep quiet to avoid angering corporate sponsors, according to Drummond Rennie, a medical journal editor who has studied the issue. This is confirmed by surveys carried out in Britain and Australia.
And in far too many cases, it is the academic institution that victimizes those scientists who dare to stand up for independence. Lagakos and Kahn may be among the fortunate few to enjoy institutional support.
In Britain, the Pusztai affair has been widely reported [6,7] and misreported to this day, so perhaps it bears repeating. Dr. Arpad Pusztai, senior scientist of the publicly-funded Rowett Institute, and his collaborators were awarded a 1.6 million pound government grant to carry out systematic safety testing of GM food, which hitherto had never been done. They found that the GM potato lines tested were toxic to young rats, and Pusztai informed the public in a brief interview, which formed part of a TV documentary broadcast in 1998. A few days later, he was sacked from his job, denied access to his data, and forbidden to speak on the subject until an international group of twenty-four scientists spoke up for him six months later. This opened the floodgates of attack and vilification against him and his supporters from within the scientific establishment, of which he has been part.
Among the most vociferous critics were government scientists who have been responsible for approving GM foods for the market and also the hitherto most respected and prestigious association of top scientists, the Royal Society. Fellows of the Royal Society accused Pusztai of endangering 'sound science' in making public findings which have not been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal. An official review was set up by the Royal Society to discredit Pusztai's work in public.
Puztai and his collaborator, Dr. Stanley Ewen of Aberdeen University, published part of their findings a year later amid a fresh storm of attack, and even reported threats to the editor of The Lancet from a fellow of the Royal Society. There are still no plans to repeat the work, nor serious efforts to support independent scientific research that would throw light on the hazards of GM. On the contrary, the scientific establishment, the government and corporate business have been working seamlessly together to suppress scientific debate and to promote biotechnology .
There have been other casualties since. Dr. Susan Bardocz, senior biochemist, was forced to take early retirement because she is Pusztai's wife and coworker, according to Pusztai; so has Stanley Ewen. Further afield, those scientists within public institutions whose work provided key evidence of horizontal gene transfer, and who have warned of its risks in GM crops, have also lost their grants or their posts.
I, too, was retired early last June. My department has banned ISIS from campus after a traumatic episode , even though I have a written contract from the University for a Visiting Readership after the retirement. The contract states that one of my main task is to run ISIS. My name has been removed from the University website, and the department is in the process of hounding me out altogether, by reducing my office space, and especially, laboratory space until it becomes unworkable.
Why are so few scientists speaking out? Is it that the vast majority of them do believe in biotechnology?
A survey on attitudes toward biotechnology among Cornell University agricultural and nutrition-science faculty and extension staff (who advise farmers) found that nearly half have reservations about the health, safety, and environmental impacts of GM crops and doubt they are the answer to global hunger . Only 37% were strong biotech supporters, while 8% thought agricultural biotech might have useful applications and help alleviate global hunger, but were concerned about food safety and inadequate testing.
Though in the minority, the biotech promoters said they felt very comfortable voicing their views in public, in contrast to the concerned majority that did not.
Too few academics are willing to openly criticize biotechnology for fear of retribution from the biotech boosters, says John Ikerd, a retired agricultural economist and biotech skeptic from the University of Missouri.
In his view, the enormous public resources devoted to biotechnology programs are corporate give-aways that come at the expense of other kinds of research, which is exactly what is happening in Europe . Ikerd's own work is on sustainable agriculture systems serving family farms rather than the big agribusiness models that land-grant universities have been promoting for more than 50 years. His research is seen as a threat to corporate agriculture, he says, because it reduces farmers' reliance on agrochemical inputs that the companies sell.
Ikerd's candid remarks don't go down well at his university. "You are not on committees you used to be on, you're not involved in the leadership of the department, and you don't get write-ups in the university publications..." How true!
Over the past year, there have been persistent rumours of staff departing from the John Innes Center, Britain's top GM crop research institute. Those staff members that have been doing sustainable agricultural research or any kind of non-GM research have disappeared. Meanwhile, corporate scientists are outdoing themselves attacking organic agriculture and promoting GM in direct opposition to the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the people. Corporate scientists are rapidly becoming public enemy number one.
When will our academic unions, universities and learned societies follow the lead of the top biomedical journals and take a firm stand against the persecution of independent scientists (see previous report), to support open discussion and debate? When will our government legislate to support and protect scientific independence, and to fund the kind of science that genuinely benefit society as a whole?
Article first published October 2001