HM Govt or GM Govt?

Science

Just before leaving office in 1961, President Eisenhower gave an astonishing warning to America. The "military-industrial-scientific complex", he said, was corrupting science and endangering the United States. The nuclear arms race and the Vietnam war showed that Eisenhower knew what he was talking about. Science became a handmaiden to the military. An estimated 70 per cent of the science budget in the US was devoted to "defence research", and many American scientific institutions simply became a front for military research. As the Nobel laureate Alvin Weinberg said of MIT, it was difficult to tell whether it was "a university with many government research laboratories appended to it or a cluster of government research laboratories with a very good educational institution attached to it". The first political victim of this relationship was President Lyndon Johnson, whose great personal vision for reforming America was compromised and destroyed by the dirty science behind the Vietnam war.

Forty years on, the world has been globalised. Corporations are not just "multinationals" any more; they are truly global. And in the post-cold war world their influence on science is almost as strong as that of the military in the 1960s. Few governments can survive by going against the corporations. Under their tutelage, science itself has been reduced to the unashamed pursuit of different ways of making money. The "military-industrial-scientific complex" has been replaced by a "corporation-government-scientific complex". The aggression of big American bio-business - so determined to push genetically modified (GM) soya on unwilling consumers and strong-arming opposition all over the world - suggests an arrogance reminiscent of America's in Vietnam. This time round, the current American president, his sexual problems notwithstanding, appears beyond harm. But his loyal supporters in Britain may be steering directly towards political disaster.

Eisenhower's place as prophet has been taken here by an appropriate person: the president of the Royal Society. Sir Aaron Klug has reminded the government and his colleagues that, when it comes to science, public opinion is like a lighthouse: if you try simply to ignore it, you will be dashed on the rocks below. Deeply concerned about risks, the public is not convinced by numbers; and smug official reassurances accomplish even less. People both resent and fear risks that are forced on them. To be made into a guinea pig merely for someone else's profit provokes rage at those firms who would impose such a risk, and contempt for those governments which connive at it. In the last resort, it is trust in the responsible authorities that makes the difference between public acceptance and rejection. And trust is conspicuous by its absence all round.

One would have thought that, in the wake of the BSE debacle, Klug's warning was unnecessary. The government should have learnt these lessons. But our rulers seem determined to ape the Bourbons in their ability to learn nothing. The DTI did issue guidelines on openness in science policy to prevent BSE-type disasters occurring, but no one seems to remember them. The recent weeks of revelations about GM foods resemble nothing so much as a lifted stone, with confusion, contradiction and unholy alliances all over the place. We now discover that even the chairman of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Peter Doyle, is an executive director of Zeneca, the gene company that gave GM tomatoes to an unsuspecting world. The BBSRC, the main government body that funds research in this area, hands out funds to the John Innes Centre in Cambridge, which houses the Sainsbury laboratory for genetic research, which is funded by the Gatsby Foundation, which was established by Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, before he became a minister. The globalised world is a small place indeed.

In the Vietnam days, the American scientific community was totally polarised. Out of love for country or cash, many scientists collaborated, helping to fashion the gruesome weapons with which the entire eco-system of Vietnam was destroyed and its population maimed and poisoned for generations. The ingenuity of Yankee scientists knew no bounds: they even developed anti-civilian fragmentation bombs with the sharp pieces made of plastic rather than metal so that X-rays could not detect them for removal. But other American scientists mobilised against their government's terrorism, and the first news about agent orange and dioxin came out thanks to their efforts.

Now a similar polarisation may be taking place here. A month ago we saw the publication of a letter by 19 eminent scientists parading their fellowship of the Royal Society, implicitly enlisting the organisation on their side. They called for "good science" and chastised those who would give credence to the work of Dr Arpad Pusztai before it was properly reviewed by his peers. Pusztai, you recall, was the scientist who first alleged that GM foods may not be as safe as we have been led to believe. The "Royal 19" give the impression that all the relevant science in the GM area is public knowledge and they demanded that all its critics be squeaky-clean in their credentials.

Unfortunately for them, their letter was preceded by the revelation that Monsanto had submitted some really bad science to the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre). The gene giant included false information on genetically engineered maize that it wants to sell in a safety assessment to Acre. This had been a secret; it was only because of a leak that the public learnt of the anger among members of the committee at Monsanto's behaviour.

The silence of the "Royal 19" about Monsanto's bad science leaves the impression that for them all the burden of proof should be on the critics of GM food. It seems to me that such silence about the secrecy of the regulatory process indicates an innocence about the real world that is ridiculously implausible for those who pronounce on policy issues. Now we discover that Monsanto's research proving the safety of BST (bovine somatoropin), the chemical injected into cows to increase the yields of milk, was also flawed. Monsanto's research had found that the hormone IGF-1, which has been linked to increased incidences of certain cancers, was not increased by the use of BST. But an EU study, led by Professor Donald Broom of Cambridge University and published a fortnight ago, suggests the opposite: IGF-1 is increased in milk by BST. "They have got it wrong," Professor Broom states categorically. So Monsanto has been forcing farmers to use a chemical that they don't want, which places an intolerable burdens on cows and exposes consumers to incalculable risks - all on the basis of faulty research.

One might even infer that, as far as these august scientists are concerned, the game should be rigged against the critics. The critics, the scientists seem to be saying, should scrupulously play by all the traditional rules of public science, while Monsanto and other genetic engineering companies can do what they damned well please behind closed doors. In other words, the regulatory bodies should roll over and do the companies' bidding anyway. Such an interpretation is doubtless unfair to the honourable men of the "Royal 19", but it is still surprising that, after being manipulated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the BSE affair, they should be willing to risk a second round in the ring.

The details are different, but the issues are the same. For American aggressive military imperialism then, we have American predatory commercial imperialism now. America's brutality abroad and mendacity at home were then quickly exposed. Now we have its arrogance abroad shown in the break-up of the Biodiversity Conference, and its mendacity in the claims that all GM products are either innocuous or fully tested. There is, as yet, little effective protest about genetic modification in America. The country is enjoying good times, its economy is booming and it had no recognised problem with BSE. But on such issues of individual rights and safety, America is like tinder. One real spark of scandal about foisting dangerous food on to children and the GM project could go up in flames.

There is another striking parallel that is really quite ominous. In each case, the dedicated political leader has had an intellectual guru who carried his disciple along on his own quest. Johnson's guru was Walt Whitman Rostow, who spent his life in flight from his socialist upbringing. (Rostow came up with a science- and technology-based "take-off" model of development that, with the help of Johnson, was imposed on a defenceless third world with disastrous consequences.) Blair's is Lord Sainsbury, who is captivated by the science that he would so much rather do than just buy. Such emotionally driven visions among confidential advisers have ruined more than one ruler and state. If Blair does not disengage himself soon from Lord Sainsbury and the GM food henchmen, he may end up reflecting upon the tragedy of Johnson and his bright, but ultimately failed, vision for America.

Ziauddin Sardar is co-author, with Jerry Ravetz, of "Introducing Mathematics" (Icon Books, £8.99)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, How the doves turned hawkish