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Warning from Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
about genetic engineering, funding and science

Fair Use Statement

Original Email

The following letter, which gives a good insight into how corporate science works in the global arena behind closed doors, has been rejected from Science magazine despite three requests for reconsideration from Dr. Samuel 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 a 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 four months. I have long cancelled my personal subscriptions to these magazines, 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 through 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 brunt of vilification from the scientific establishment. We have all had our lives 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 read if we didn't think it was so important for the public to be informed of what corporate science has in store for us. This is what democracy is all about. We have repeatedly invited and challenged those real scientists who disagree 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 gathered 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 NAS-modeled IAC.

Through its huge think tank, the National Research Council (NRC) chaired by Alberts with a full-time staff of 1000 and a $200 million budget, 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) which Alberts still vehemently opposes, NRC committees and panels meet secretly in 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 Occurring 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 citizen 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. Alberts responded admitting "that some of the committee members have performed some consulting for industry," but dismissed these concerns as "the same members 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 Diets of Infants and Children," which explicitly warned of cancer risks to children.

A more blatant conflict of interest is evidenced by the composition 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 relationship between the industry and NRC. Unknown to the panel, its executive director Dr. Michael Phillips was secretly negotiating for a senior position in the Biotechnology Industry Organization. He joined the industry some 3 months later.

As federal support is beginning to shrink, the NAS plans to increase 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. Instead, 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 of 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
(312) 996-2297

Edward Goldsmith, M.A.
The Ecologist
46 The Vineyard, Richmond, Surrey, U.K.
(011) 44-181-332-6963

Mae Wan Ho, Ph.D.
Department of Biology
The Open University
Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, U.K.
(011) 44-1908-653-113

Genetic Engineered Food Resources

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