When it comes to biotechnology, money talks. Fr. Seán McDonagh, (SSC, (June 8, 2009)

Recently I wrote about the major concerns that Dr. Don Lotter has about the safety of genetically engineered crops.  In a second article in the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food, he writes about the close and questionable relationship between big business, especially, biotechnology companies, and research. [1]

The central problem here has been the move away from publicly funded science. The aim of such science is to promote the common good. The goal of corporately funded science is to maximise profits for their shareholders. According to Lotter, the consequences of this change, especially, in regard to genetically modified organisms GMOs, has been very worrying.

  • Tolerance by the scientific community of bias against, and mistreatment of non-compliant scientists, whose work results in negative finds for transgenics.  Examples here include what happened in Britain to Dr. Arpad Pusztai and to Dr. Ignacio Capella in the U.S.
  • Monopolization of the make-up of expert scientific bodies on trangenics by pro-industry scientists with vested interests in transgenics.
  • Deficient scientific protocols, bias, and possible fraud in industry-sponsored and industry-controlled safety testing of transgenic food.
  • An increase in the manipulation of science by politicians and personnel from the biotech industry of federal regulatory bodies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).[2]

This shift away from publicly funding science has been described as “academic capitalism.” This contrasts with the traditional understanding of the role of scientific research within the university community.  Scientists were expected to be so detached from the results of their research that they would readily encourage others to test and verify their results. Taking a commercial interest in the results of one’s research was frowned on, since it could easily lead to a serious conflict of interest.  Lotter pinpoints the shift in emphasis to the Bayh-Dole Act in the U.S. in 1980. This promoted closer ties between Universities and Business by allowing the Universities to retain the intellectual property rights of research even when funded by the Federal government.  The universities themselves were aware that they were on a slippery slope.  Lotter refers to a report commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It stated that:

If the ties to industry encourage secrecy, divert the faculty away from university-centered research and education, bring external controls to the direction of research, and allow profit motives to enter the discussions about hiring and promotion, then such ties may indeed erode what is left of the image of the university as a detached institution able to provide relatively impartial, independent, and therefore credible expertise.[3]

Other keen commentators foresaw the dangers involved in mixing commerce with education.  Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University, warned that universities could be seduced away from their proper role by increased commercial ties.  Initially, the benefits in the way of funding seem important while the risk to academic freedom seem manageable. According to him “the problems come so gradually and silently that their link to commercialisation may not even be perceived. [4]

In the past 20 years the biotechnology industry has been a major player in the move to privatize research.  The University of California is a case in points. Despite the fact that it has received tens of millions of dollars for research on biotechnology products, research on whether biotech food is safe, or will have an adverse impact on the environment, has been very small. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which disburses research money to universities gave $1.8 billion to biotechnology research.[5] Of this a paltry one percent or $18 million was spent on risk-related research.

Lotter points out that those who have raised genuine scientific questions about GM food, Arpad Pusztai at the Rowett Institute in  Scotland, Ignacio Chapela at the University of California, Berkley and Irina Ermakova a physiologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences,  have been subjected to all kinds of personal insults and lost their source of employment.  He goes on  to charge that agencies such as the National Academy of Science in the U.S. have been stacked with pro-industry scientists.

A 2006 survey carried out on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists in the U.S. found out that among one thousand scientists who had worked for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, (FDA) found that 61% knew of cases in which political appointees ‘inappropriately interjected themselves into the FDA determinations or actions.’[6] None of these serious concerns surfaced at the Pontifical Academy of Science’s Study Week in May 2009, but it too was stacked with pro-biotech speakers.

[1] Don Lotter, “Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science – Part 1: Development of a Flawed Enterprise, International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food, Vol. 16,No. 1, pp31-49.

[2]. Don Lotter, “Academic Capitalism and the Loss of Scientific Integrity,” International Journal of  Sociology  of Agriculture and Food, Vol. 16, No 1, pp. 50-6 pp. 51.

[3] Quoted in Lotter, page 52.

[4] Bok, D, (2003), University in the Marketplaces: The Commercialization of Higher Education, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

[5] Ibid page 53.

[6] Ibid, page 60


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s