Science in Society Archive

The Corporate Take Over of Science

Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain by George Monbiot, MacMillan, London, 2000.

Review by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain

The corporate take over is here and threatening the foundations of democratic government. That is the message of George Monbiot's explosive and important book Corporations have seized control of our hospitals, schools and universities. They have infiltrated the government and come to dominate government ministries, buying and selling planning permission, dispensing our tax money to research and development that benefit industry, taking over the food chain. To top it all, the British Government has colluded in ceding its power to international institutions controlled by corporations, such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Anyone who is under the delusion that corrupt or corrupted governments are only in the Third World has better think again.

The chapter on corporate takeover of universities is too close to home. I have been on the permanent academic staff of the Open University since 1976, but was strongly encouraged to take early retirement last June as I became more and more involved in the genetic engineering debate.

In the course of the genetic engineering debate, I had begun to realise that the corporate takeover of science was the greatest threat to democracy and to the survival of our planet [1]. That was why I co-founded the not-for-profit Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) to work for social responsibility and sustainable approaches in science and the integration of science in society. As part of the agreement for my retirement, I was to be given an honorary secondment, so I could continue running I-SIS from the University, while making it clear it was independent from the University. The situation soon began to rapidly deteriorate, however.

In August, less than two months after my retirement, my research assistant and I were both officially banned from the University campus. Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) alleged in a letter and phone-call to my head of Department that I was in possession of certain internal papers belonging to them. Huntingdon Life Sciences is a privately-owned laboratory, at the time doing contract research for the biotech companies, among them Imutran, a subsidiary of the corporate-giant Novartis.

The University made no attempt to communicate with me or with my assistant before imposing the ban. Had they done so, they would have found that HLS' accusation was false. I was sent some papers by a group campaigning for animal welfare, who were helping me obtain published scientific papers on cross-species organ transplant - the experiments being carried out in HLS for Imutran - so that I-SIS could prepare a scientific critique, which we did [2]. The internal papers were never used and have been destroyed since, as I judged that there was enough in the scientific literature to damn the whole project on safety and moral grounds.

But the chief of HLS, Brian Cass, tried to intimidate me, in phone calls, and in an e-mail, to get me to reveal the identity of the campaigning group. I refused to do so.

When I went on campus to prepare my reply to the ban, the Sub-Dean of Science came into my office and threatened to have me removed physically with the security guard.

After days on the telephone to my Union representative, the Dean of Science agreed to see me. Months later, the ban was lifted for myself, but my for my assistant; the University denied that she had, in fact, been given an honorary research fellowship a year earlier. I was further barred from using University facilities for ISIS.

The animal welfare group, Uncaged Campaigns, has gone public since with a 150 page report leaked to the press, documenting excessive suffering of animals at HLS, and Imutran's exaggeration of the success of the pig to primate organ transplant research. Imutran has brought an injunction against Uncaged Campaigns to prevent the release of the report. But just four days after the news broke, Novartis announced the closure of Imutran, and the removal of the research to the United States. Nevertheless, Novartis has pursued the case against Uncaged Campaigns to full trial and won. Since then there has been a plethora of prominent articles in the mainstream press condemning animal rights activists and defending Huntingdon Life Sciences.

George Monbiot gives many more examples of similar treatments the University administrations mete out to academics daring to dissent from the corporate agenda or to criticise it. The Centre for Human Ecology, started by distinguished evolutionist and geneticist C.H. Waddington more than 30 years ago, was hounded out of Edinburgh University in 1996, essentially for raising questions in both the scientific and popular press about the Conservative Government's science policies. Academic and government scientists are all too often asked to falsify data in order not to offend corporate funders.

'Today, there is scarcely a science faculty in the United Kingdom whose academic freedom has not been compromised by its funding arrangements. Contact between government-funded researchers and industry, having once been discouraged, is now, in many departments, effectively compulsory….our universities have been offered for sale, with the result that objectivity and intellectual honesty are becoming surplus to requirements.'

The sell-out began under the Conservative Government, and with science research funding which effectively controls what kinds of science would be done. The 1993 white paper on science called 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 for science would be obliged to develop 'more extensive and deeper links' with industry. They would be required '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 role of the higher education funding councils, which provide the core money for universities, was redefined ' to ensure that higher education is responsive to the needs of business and industry'.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research council (BBSRC), the main funding body for Britain's academic biologists with an annual budget of £190m, is chaired by Peter Doyle, an executive director of the biotech corporation, Zeneca. Among the members of its council are the Chief Executive of the pharmaceutical firm Chiroscience, the former Director of Research and Development of the food company Nestle; the President of the Food and Drink Federation; the general manager of Britain's biggest farming business and a consultant to the biochemical industry. The BBSRC's strategy board contains executives from SmithKline Beecham, Merck Sharpe and Dohme and Agrevo UK (now subsidiary of Aventis, the company responsible for getting the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) to support the controversial 'farmscale' field trials with £3 million of taxpayer's money). The Council has seven specialist committees, each overseeing the funding of different branches of biology. Employees of Zeneca sit on all of them.

The BBSRC was established in 1994 to replace the biological program previously run by 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'.

The BBSRC's press release falls into three categories: news about the research grants it allocates, news about the findings resulting from those grants, and fierce attacks on critics of genetic engineering. Arpad Pusztai's publication in The Lancet was condemned as 'irresponsible'. When Friends of the Earth released the results of research showing that GM oilseed rape pollen was being carried four and a half kilometres (well beyond the legal 'isolation distances'), the BBSRC issued a statement that the finding was 'a distraction from the key issues'.

Gene biotechnology research is 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 were allocated to projects that would enable the UK 'to remain internationally competitive in the deveopment 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 Zeneca and Dupont.

The BBSRC also funds the secondment of academics into corporations to 'influence basic research relevant to company objectives'. The Council launched a Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme, 'aimed at encouraging a more entrepreneurial attitude in bioscientists'. It has paid for researcher to work for Nestle, Unilever, Glaxo Wellcome, SmithKline Beecham, AgrEvo, Dupont, Rhone Poulenc and Zeneca.

Most telling of all, scientists working in university departments receiving BBSRC grants are formally gagged to prevent them becoming 'involved in political controversy in matters affecting research in biotechnology and biological sciences'. In practice, however, scientists can hype biotechnology to their heart's content. The gagging is strictly aimed at critics.

The same pattern of corporate takeover is repeated in the other research councils, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

I recently visited the MRC website and found that an extra £1.9 billion is to be committed to 'health genomics research' over the next five years [3]. That is 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.

A number of the MRC proposals are controversial to say the least (see 'MRC proposes human experiments in GM foods', and 'UK population DNA database to be established' I-SIS press releases <>).

George has confirmed what many people already suspect and experienced in their personal struggles for freedom and democracy in different spheres of life. What can we do in the face of the ever-increasing consolidation of corporate control? Monbiot has only one answer: don't despair, fight on!

'The struggle between people and corporations will be the defining battle of the twenty-first century. If the corporations win, liberal democracy will come to an end. The great social democratic institutions which have defended the weak against the strong - equality before the law, representative government, democratic accountability and the sovereignty of parliament - will be toppled. If, on the other hand, the corporate attempt on public life is beaten back, then democracy may re-emerge the stronger for its conquest. But this victory cannot be brokered by our representatives. Democracy will survive only if the people in whose name they govern rescue the state from its captivity.'

This book is meticulously researched and scholarly, but despite the seriousness of the subject matter, it is refreshingly well written. The style of the prose is pleasantly evocative, light and engaging, even when his message is at its most uncompromisingly radical.

Article first published 26/01/01

  1. Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? Turning the Tide on the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, by Mae-Wan Ho, Gateway Gill& Macmillan, 1998, 2nd ed., 1999.
  2. Xenotransplantation: How bad science and big business put the world at risk from viral pandemic. ISIS Sustainable Science Audit #2,

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho


Institute of Science in Society

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