Warning from Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
about genetic engineering, funding and science
Fair Use Statement
The following letter, which gives a good insight into how corporate
works in the global arena behind closed doors, has been rejected from
Science magazine despite three requests for reconsideration from Dr.
Epstein. The issue at stake is democracy and the social control of science
and technology, which is all the more urgent, as technologies become more
powerful and uncontrollable.
This is not the first time that magazines such as Science, Nature and New
Scientist have refused to give voice to scientists dissenting from the
corporate view, to which they give undue and apparently unlimited access.
Nature Biotechnology even published a long article attempting to discredit
scientific review - on the potential hazards of the cauliflower mosaic
viral promoter (now published) - in the worst style of gutter journalism,
and only gave a very grudging right to reply after a delay of three to
months. I have long cancelled my personal subscriptions to these
and I suggest others might consider doing the same.
We can have no confidence in the International Academy Council being
proposed, unless and until the composition of this Council has gone
the necessary open democratic process. Scientists like us have tried our
best to engage the scientific community as well as the general public in
open debate. Some, like Dr. Arpad Puztai had lost his job and bore the
of vilification from the scientific establishment. We have all had our
and work ruined, not the least of which by being forced to read boring
scientific papers and documents that we would never have volunteered to
if we didn't think it was so important for the public to be informed of
corporate science has in store for us. This is what democracy is all
We have repeatedly invited and challenged those real scientists who
with us to debate the science in public and in terms that the public can
understand. They have turned us down again and again.
At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, the President of the U.S.
National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Bruce Alberts, and an unheralded group
of a dozen other presidents of national science academies, quietly
behind the scenes to propose the creation of an International Academy
Council (IAC) as a global science advisory board. The object of the IAC,
expected to be formalized this month, is to provide "impartial scientific
advice" to governments and international organizations on issues such as
genetic engineering, threatened ecosystems, and biodiversity. While most
would agree with Alberts "that the world needs much more advice from
scientists," there are serious questions on reliance of advice from an
Through its huge think tank, the National Research Council (NRC)
chaired by Alberts with a full-time staff of 1000 and a $200 million
the NAS conducts studies and prepares about 200 reports annually, largely
under contract to federal agencies. However, in flagrant violation of
governmental openness rules (the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act)
Alberts still vehemently opposes, NRC committees and panels meet secretly
closed sessions, fail to disclose their minutes and conflict of interest
statements, and fail to require that their membership reflects balanced
representation of divergent interests and viewpoints. Illustrative is the conduct of the NRC committee on "Comparative Toxicity of Naturally
Carcinogens" which issued the 1996 report on "Carcinogens and
Anticarcinogens in the Human Diet." This report trivialized concerns on
cancer risks to infants and children from food contaminated with
carcinogenic pesticides, as these were alleged to "occur at levels far too
low to have any adverse effects on health." Acting on behalf of an ad hoc
coalition of about 100 leading independent experts in public health and
cancer prevention, and representatives of a wide range of labor and
groups, one of us (SSE) warned Alberts that this committee was grossly
unbalanced and "disproportionately weighted with industry consultants;" it
should further be noted that no pediatrician was invited to serve.
responded admitting "that some of the committee members have performed
consulting for industry," but dismissed these concerns as "the same
have also advised or consulted for regulatory agencies." Other concerns
were expressed that the composition of the NRC Committee could "be used to
discredit or undermine" the previous NRC report on "Pesticides in the
of Infants and Children," which explicitly warned of cancer risks to
A more blatant conflict of interest is evidenced by the
of the March, 1999 NRC biotechnology panel with its disproportionate
representation of experts directly linked to the industry. This conflict
was compounded by the subsequent discovery of a revolving-door
between the industry and NRC. Unknown to the panel, its executive
Dr. Michael Phillips was secretly negotiating for a senior position in the
Biotechnology Industry Organization. He joined the industry some 3 months
As federal support is beginning to shrink, the NAS plans to
funding from non-federal sources, which currently account for some 15% of
its budget. The NAS is also planning to extend its influence to major
national policy concerns. However, characteristic of his penchant for
secrecy, Alberts has refused to release a pending report recommending
reorganization of NAS policies and procedures.
Evaluation of global concerns, particularly on public health and
environmental integrity, should not be entrusted to a non-transparent and
unaccountable cabal of self-appointed experts, such as the proposed IAC,
whose views may reflect special interests rather than the public.
highly qualified independent scientists acceptable to or working with
non-governmental organizations (NGO's) should play a major role in any
international science advisory body. These include the recently proposed
World Academy of Science in Society, The Physicians and Scientists for
Responsible Application of Science and Technology (PSRAST), and the group
some 300 "World Scientists."
Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
School of Public Health, University of Illinois at
Chicago and Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition
2121 W. Taylor St.
Chicago, IL 60612
Edward Goldsmith, M.A.
46 The Vineyard, Richmond, Surrey, U.K.
Mae Wan Ho, Ph.D.
Department of Biology
The Open University
Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, U.K.
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