Science in Society Archive

Which Science or Scientists Can You Trust?

Michael Meacher told a public conference on Science, Medicine and the Law in the strongest terms that we need independent science and scientists who take the precautionary principle seriously and sweeping changes are needed in science funding and scientific advice to the government that ensures the protection of independent science

Which scientists?

Nobody disagrees that debate over whether we should go ahead with new technologies should be conducted on the basis of science, but which science? Independent science or industrial science? Let me test out a few examples on you.

Fifteen years ago a lorry driver accidentally tipped 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate into the public drinking supply in north Cornwall – nearby residents and local doctors are convinced they were poisoned; but two Government enquiries found no evidence. Whom do you believe?

There are childhood leukaemia clusters in villages down the Cumbrian coast – local residents and independent scientists think it is the consequence of chronic exposure to low-level radiation from nearby Sellafield; but the Department of Industry (DTI) and British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) think it is nothing to do with local nuclear power stations – their best explanation is that it is caused by high levels of inward and outward migration. Whom do you believe?

Mark Purdey, a Somerset farmer turned epidemiologist, has produced detailed evidence to show that BSE was caused by farmers spreading Phosmetz, an organohosphate (OP), over the backs of cattle as a prophylaxis, but the Government's MRC Toxicology Unit - funded by the pharmaceutical company Zeneca - apparently refuted this theory. Which company held all rights over the production of Phosmetz? Zeneca. Whom do you believe?

Gulf War Syndrome has been a persistent disabling, and sometimes lethal, condition since the first war in Kuwait in 1991. Both UK and US soldiers and their independent scientific advisers are convinced that the soldiers were poisoned by the OP insecticides that they were liberally sprayed with. But the MOD and chemical companies insist there is no evidence for this. Whom do you believe?

Well, if you have any doubts, look at what has actually happened in the past when Government, in the teeth of overwhelming evidence, have often finally been forced to back track from entrenched positions that they always said were supported scientifically.

Science can quite often get things wrong.

Which science?

Government biologists initially refused to accept that power stations in Britain or Germany could kill fish or trees hundreds of miles away in Scandinavia; later the idea of acidification caused by SO2 was universally accepted.

Government scientists originally did not agree that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were destroying the ozone layer; but during the 1987 negotiations on the Montreal Protocol the industry – ICI and Du Pont – abruptly changed sides, and ministers and scientists soon fell into line alongside them.

The Lawther working party of Government scientists roundly rejected any idea that health-damaging high levels of lead in the blood came overwhelmingly from vehicle exhausts, only to find that after lead-free petrol was introduced, blood-lead levels fell 70%.

The Southwood committee of BSE scientists insisted in 1990 that scrapie in cattle could not cross the species barrier, only to find by 1996 that it did just that. And there are many more examples.

Scientific uncertainty and the precautionary principle

The only way to deal with these problems is by applying the precautionary principle. Perhaps the classic formulation of the precautionary principle was at the Rio Summit in 1992 principle 15: “in order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

That principle survived renegotiation attempts during the Johannesburg Summit in September 2002, and was reaffirmed in the Plan of Implementation that resulted from the Summit.

Why has this not been adopted by scientists and policy-makers? There can be only one reason: cynicism of not disturbing powerful political and economic interests.

It is highly disturbing to realise how long it takes for poisonous chemicals to be banned after scientific evidence emerged that they were harmful.

  • Benzene was demonstrated as powerful bone marrow poison in 1897
  • Acute respiratory effects of asbestos was identified 1898
  • The ability of PCB to induce chloracne was documented in 1898

But it was not until 1960-70s that significant progress was made in restricting damages caused by these agents.

Independent scientists vilified

Efforts were made to discredit independent critics, as in the case of Richard Lacey and Mark Purdey in BSE, & Arpad Pusztai in GM food, and too many other examples.

Data and reports have been regularly suppressed or publishers intimidated, as in the Great Lakes chemical case.

The Southwood Committee on BSE believed a ban on the use of all cattle brains in human food chain might be justified, but considered that politically unfeasible.

There was also incompetence: the Department of Health was not informed by MAFF (the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, now disbanded) about the emergence of new disease (BSE) until 17 months after MAFF was first alerted.

Pervasive mistrust of science and scientists

No wonder that there is a pervasive mistrust of science and scientists. But the roots for this go deep.

First, the Rothschild revolution under Thatcher made the funding of science much more subservient to business interests. Over the past two decades, getting finance for scientific inquiry inimical to the commercial and political establishments has become increasingly difficult. The science is owned by a tiny number of very large companies and they only commission research which they believe will further their own commercial interests. And when that turns out not to be the case, as when research turns up results which may be embarrassing to the company, they are most often dubbed “commercially confidential” and never published.

In addition, companies have learned that small investments in endowing chairs, sponsoring research programmes or hiring professors for out-of-hours projects can produce disproportionate payoffs in generating reports, articles, reviews and books, which may not be in the public interest, but certainly benefit corporate bottom lines. The effects of corporate generosity - donating millions for this research laboratory or that scientific programme – can be subtly corrosive. Other universities regard the donor as a pote ntial source of funds and try to ensure nothing is said which might jeopardise big new cash possibilities. And academics raising embarrassing questions (as they should) - such as who is paying for the lab; how independent is the peer review; who profits from the research; is the university's integrity compromised? – would soon learn that keeping their heads down is the best way not to risk their career, let alone future research funding. The message is clear: making money is good, and dissent is stifled. Commerce and the truth don't readily mix.

A second reason why there is such pervasive mistrust of science and scientists is that the scientists staffing the official advisory committees and Government regulatory bodies in a significant number of cases have financial links with the industry they are supposed to be independently advising on and regulating. A recent study found that of the five scientific committees advising ministers on food and safety, 40% of committee members had links with the biotechnology industry, and at least 20% were linked to one of the Big Three – Monsanto, AstraZeneca, or Novartis. Nor is that an accident. The civil servants who select scientists for those bodies tend to look for a preponderant part of the membership, and particularly the chairperson, to be ‘sound', i.e., can be safely relied on not to cause embarrassment to the Government or industry if difficulties arise.

Third, the culture of spin and intimidation is far more pervasive than should ever be allowed. The shocking sacking and vilification of Dr Arpad Pusztai, when he produced GM research results inconvenient to the Government, bio-tech industry and the Americans, was no doubt, deliberately intended as a warning to others if they stepped out of line. And the threats and insinuations made clear to the only two independent scientists on the UK Government's GM Science Panel, Dr Carlo Leifert and Andrew Sterling, demonstrates all too clearly how viciously the Establishment will fight to safeguard its own interests.

And on spin, how many times have we heard the false argument that is still regularly deployed by ACRE, the Government's main GM advisory committee, when it announces that, “there is no evidence that this GM product is any greater risk to human health than its non-GM counterpart”. In fact they have not sought such evidence directly, merely relied on the biotech companies telling them that their GM product was ‘substantially equivalent' to its alleged non-GM analogue.

Fourth, science is not, and never has been, a value-free search for the truth. It is a social construct influenced by a variety of rules, peer group pressures, and personal and cultural expectations. It is developed, like all human thought, from preconceived built-in judgements, assumptions and dogmas, the more powerful because they are often unconsciously held.

So what is to be done?

What all this means is that science can only be fully trusted if it is pursued with the most rigorous procedures that guarantee total independence and freedom from commercial and political bias. That is far too often not the case today. The implications for policy are clear.

One, if the Government truly wants independent research, it has to be prepared to pay for it, not lay down, as it has, that 25% of finance for publicly funded research should come from private sources, thus forcing the universities into the hands of corporate sponsors.

Two, the Government should also require that no member of its advisory committee or regulatory bodies should have any current or recently past financial or commercial link with the industry concerned.

Three, contributors to scientific journals should be required to make full disclosure of current and prior funding sources, so that any conflicts of interest can be exposed and taken into account.

Four, we need above all a Government with the political gumption to stand up to the United States and those demanding calls from the White House, to stand up to the biotech companies, and to stand up to big business, and make clear that there will be no succumbing to dominant political /economic interests, e.g. no growing of GM crops in this country until proper, systematic, independent, peer-reviewed research, which is totally absent at present, has been carried through and made public which demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt whether GM foods are safe or not.

We should never forget the words of Winston Churchill, who said “Science should be on tap, not on top”.

This is an edited version of Michael Meacher's keynote address to the Green Network Conference, Science, Medicine and the Law, 31 January to 2 February 2005, Royal Institute of British Architecture, London, UK, which will be published in issue 26 of Science in Society ( )

Article first published 25/02/05

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