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We need more Foxes and less foxiness

Many congratulations to Fiona Fox and her dedicated team of scientists at the Science Media Centre (SMC), which held its 10th anniversary at the Science Museum in London last night.

Several speakers at the event praised the SMC for improving the quality of science journalism in the UK, by working quickly to put journalists in touch with impartial experts when science-based news stories break. 

A case in point is recent coverage of the research published by Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini from CRIIGEN, which involved feeding rats with GM maize and roundup herbicide.

This had all the potential for becoming another sensational frankenfood, shock-horror story, particularly as the authors chose to publicise their research by issuing embargoed copies of the study direct to the media.

The story received balanced coverage, in the UK, partly due to the efforts of the SMC. 

I will leave comment on the quality of the science to the independent experts advising EFSA (assuming that the authors of the research agree to share their data).

However, I do wonder why the authors chose to publish in the way they did and whether their aim was to stimulate a balanced rational debate. What do you think?

7 Comments

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Comments:

I am more than a little intrigued by the role of the Science Media Centre in all of this. If you go to its web site you can see who its funders are — including Bayer, BASF and Syngenta. It has clearly set itself the task of creating such scientific confusion that the poor naive journalists who write for the national press do not know what to think, and meekly connive in burying the story that NK603 and Roundup are probably both toxic to mammals. So the “furore” becomes the story — and the media maintain the pretence that GM products are completely harmless, because the GM industry and its sychophants tell us that it is.

That is both irresponsible and culpable — since this is one of the most important public health stories of recent years. Now we find that the Science Media Centre is also active in Canada, Australia and New Zealand — apparently also spreading disinformation and confusion there, and wheeling out its own pet “experts” to vilify a group of scientists who have produced a seminal paper submitted and published in a top-ranking peer-reviewed scientific journal. What is going on here? And whatever happened to respectful scientific debate? Am I alone in thinking that something deeply sinister is going on here?

Posted by Steve on October 03, 2012 at 05:18 PM BST #

Well now -- this is very revealing. Sycophantic and irresponsible in the extreme. This is one of the most serious news stories about public health to break in the last decade, and the FSA response is to denigrate it and to praise the SMC for its attempts to bury the story and to create a "scientific furore" designed to confuse both the media and the public. Balanced coverage from the SMC? You must be joking..... have you actually looked at their briefing materials? "Impartial experts"? Come along now -- just look at their CVs.

You are being entirely disingenuous in your comments about the manner in which the Seralini research was conducted and published. As you know full well, the study had to be conducted in conditions of complete secrecy because Monsanto, if they had known of it, would have moved heaven and hell to kill it and to prevent publication. It is a small miracle that the research was completed and published in a peer-reviewed journal. You must know that.

And you are being disingenuous again in your comment about the French group agreeing to share its data sets with EFSA. Have you ever demanded the full release of the data sets used by the applicants for GM consents? I suspect not. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

When you have finished praising the sinister activities of SMC, I advise you to look at this French study very seriously indeed. Its findings are not aberrations -- they confirm what many other studies have shown, namely that chronic toxic effects are associated with the consumption of GM products and Roundup residues. You are charged with the protection of public health. When are you going to take that responsibility seriously?

Posted by Brian John on October 04, 2012 at 11:43 AM BST #

Yet again proper scientific evidence is rubbished by the pro-GM community.

How can the SMC provide 'impartial experts' when they are funded by GM technology companies like Syngenta & BASF?

Instead of rubbishing this scientific work that shows once again that rats got sick and grew cancerous tumours from GM food, why not do your job and protect the public from this toxic so-called 'food'?

A scientist

Posted by Catherine Greenall on October 04, 2012 at 03:50 PM BST #

Does the chief scientist of the FSA, Andrew Wadge, commend one-sided negative coverage of a fascinating piece of preliminary work on toxicity which challenges a carefully cultivated corporate climate of complacency? What a sad reflection on the ongoing emasculation of the public service ethos.

There is a clear asymmetry evident to social scientists between not commenting on the lack of full data release in safety dossiers for approval applications and calling on Seralini's team to release their data to the very group who approved the crop in the first place based on tests which could well turn out to have had too short a duration to be fit for purpose. Would they really be expected to criticise their own findings in "independent" fashion? More helpful and scientific would surely be for the Chief Scientist to call for follow-up testing using the same duration and larger sample sizes - a notable omission in his comments. Will Monsanto agree to allow use of their seeds for such research? What sample sizes did their own food safety research report on?

The Science Media Centre and Sense about Science were both created in interesting circumstances - see http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Science_Media_Centre . It is easy to find that their funders include a range of agrochemical companies and their trade organisations if one chooses to move on whatever one chooses to make of the background of both organisations' key characters.

I have spoken to a number of GM scientists who have described how their findings of unexpected pleiotropic effects have not reached publication because of research continuation fears. I have spoken to other academics and well-placed civil servants who have described other substantial instances of intimidation, some subtle, some blunt. Its all highly surprising until one reads a piece such as the chief scientist's comments above and realises how fearful they must be if this is the attitude at the apex.

American journal editors seem more alert than our own FSA to the implications of funding on the balance of research findings and sculpting of media coverage by PR outfits such as the SMC. This leaves a question hanging in the air, what then is the point of having an FSA with its chief scientist if it is not prepared to commend genuinely free thinking (or call for normal repeat testing to establish the validity of potentially important novel findings) and apparently prefers to collude with a questionable status quo? Is some science too uncomfortable?

Posted by Rev Paul Cawthorne on October 06, 2012 at 07:57 AM BST #

EFSA’s initial response

Thank you for your comments. I’m sure that this issue will continue to generate interest.

I would point everyone in the direction of EFSA’s initial statement on this research.
http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/2910.htm

Posted by Andrew Wadge on October 08, 2012 at 03:36 PM BST #

EFSA's initial statement is a disgrace -- put out by a small "rebuttal unit" made up of the very officials who have been recommending GMO approvals for years, on the basis of non-replicable and non-verifiable science submitted by the likes of Monsanto. The man chosen to approve the statement on behalf of the GMO Panel of EFSA is none other than Andrew Chesson, one of those who drove Arpad Pusztai from his post in 1998/99 when he had the temerity to discover toxic effects associated with GM potatoes -- and he is also one of those most closely involved in the original EC consent for NK603 maize -- which has now been found to have toxic effects. It beggars belief that Chesson was asked to take this role, and it also beggars belief that he accepted. I cannot conceive of a less impartial EFSA "multidisciplinary task force" -- everybody on it has powerful vested interests in "burying" the Seralini study. It shows that EFSA is corrupt to the core.

Posted by Brian John on October 10, 2012 at 01:19 PM BST #

Blog on Seralini research – some comments

I would like to address some of the comments made above.

Steve asks ‘whatever happened to scientific debate’? Paul asks whether I ‘commend one-sided negative coverage’. Part of the reason I blog is precisely because I support open debate and I am happy to participate in it. What I do commend is good science and, conversely, I support robust criticism of inadequate science.

This particular study attracted considerable coverage and debate. Authors reporting exceptional findings on controversial topics have a particular responsibility to take care how they promote their findings. It is hard to argue with the Nature editorial [ http://www.nature.com/news/poison-postures-1.11478 ] that, on this occasion, this did not happen. In order to encourage good scientific debate authors need to ensure that the strengths and limitations of the study are explained and that the findings need to be assessed and capable of replication by the scientific community.

Catherine – my job involves assessing the robustness of the science. The initial EFSA review [ http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/2910.htm ] concludes that the study is of insufficient quality to be considered for risk assessment and official bodies in Germany, the Netherlands and Australia have also highlighted its weaknesses. You sign yourself as ‘A scientist’ so I am sure you will want to consider the points about methodological inadequacies. The science does not support your conclusions. It is to be hoped that the authors will now share their data with EFSA to facilitate more detailed analysis of the findings.

Brian commented that ‘it’s a small miracle that the research was completed and published in a peer-reviewed journal’. I would say it was more surprising than miraculous. Surprising that a study with such methodological inadequacies got through the peer-review process. And also concerning that the animals that developed the grotesque tumours illustrated in the publication were not removed from the study at an earlier stage, given the ethical and animal welfare issues this entailed.

On the issue of animal welfare, it is important that studies in laboratory animals follow strict guidelines and that the use of animals and any potential suffering is minimised. I am surprised, therefore, that Paul appears to support much more animal testing by suggesting that I should ‘call for follow-up testing using the same duration and larger sample sizes’.

The safety of GM (and other novel foods) is done on a case-by-case and comparative basis. So, an approved GM food will be assessed by independent scientists ‘as safe as its conventional counterpart’. Testing the safety of a new medicine in animals involves dosing at levels orders of magnitude higher than would normally be consumed by humans. While animal testing can have a role to play, it is not possible to feed whole foods to animals at a hundred times the ‘dose’ that humans consume. This issue is covered in detail in Food and Chemical Toxicology 46(2008)S2-S70. On the basis of this expert opinion I would certainly not support routine testing of whole foods to animals.

Paul asks what is the point of a chief scientist of the FSA. I guess this is for others to judge, but I am very proud of the work that the FSA does on behalf of consumers. Of course we will always assess new findings (such as the Seralini et al study) and if necessary re-evaluate policies in line with the evidence. But we will also continue to do what is set out in my annual report [ http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/publication/csar1112.pdf ], which is to be guided by the science and evidence to try to make the biggest improvements in food safety for consumers. Hence our strategy on foodborne illness and, in particular, Campylobacter in chicken, which is causing real sickness and suffering to humans not laboratory animals.

The Nature editorial editorial put it nicely: ‘Polarized debates, not GMOs, are the poison to be avoided.’

Posted by Andrew Wadge on October 11, 2012 at 02:40 PM BST #

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