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Britain's Scientific Elite Continue to Try to Suppress
Dr. Pusztai's Research on Dangers of GE Foods

Pro-GM food scientist 'threatened editor'

GM food: special report The Guardian (UK)

Laurie Flynn and Michael Sean Gillard
Monday November 1, 1999

The editor of one of Britain's leading medical
journals, the Lancet, says he was threatened by a
senior member of the Royal Society, the voice of
the British science establishment, that his job
would be at risk if he published controversial
research questioning the safety of genetically
fied foods.

Richard Horton declined to name the man who
telephoned him. But the Guardian has identified
him as Peter Lachmann, the former
vice-president and biological secretary of the
Royal Society and president of the Academy of
Medical Sciences.

The Guardian has been told that an influential
group within the Royal Society has set up what
appears to be a "rebuttal unit" to push a
pro-biotech line and counter opposing scientists
and environmental groups.

Dr Horton said he was called at his office in
central London on the morning of Wednesday
October 13, two days before the Lancet published
a research paper by Arpad Pusztai, the scientist
at the centre of the GM controversy.

Dr Horton, editor of the Lancet since 1995, said
the phone call began in a "very aggressive
manner". He said he was called "immoral" and
accused of publishing Dr Pusztai's paper which he
"knew to be untrue".

Towards the end of the call Dr Horton said the
caller told him that if he published the Pusztai
paper it would "have implications for his
personal position" as editor. The Lancet is owned
by Reed Elsevier, one of Europe's largest
scientific publishing houses.

At the end of the call Dr Horton, 37, said he
immediately informed his colleagues and named
the caller.

Prof Lachmann, a professor of immunology at
Cambridge and a Royal Society fellow for 17
years, confirmed that he rang Dr Horton on
October 13 to discuss his "error of judgment" in
deciding to publish the paper.

He said he called Dr Horton after he had been
emailed, "probably by the Royal Society", a proof
of the paper.

However, Prof Lachmann, 67, "categorically
denies" making any threat to Dr Horton during the
call. "This is absolute rubbish, it would never
have crossed my mind," he said. "I didn't accuse
him of being immoral. I said there were moral
difficulties about publishing bad science. I think I
probably suggested to him that he knew the
science was very bad. They [the Lancet] knew it
was bad science, whether you call that untrue or
not, I don't think I used the word untrue."

Prof Lachmann's call to Dr Horton was preceded
by a series of controversial interventions by the
society on the Pusztai affair. While
vice-president of the society, Prof Lachmann
chaired a special working group on GM plants for
food use last year which endorsed their "potential
for real benefits" but recognised the need for
further research and monitoring. The Royal
Society says that its report is now being used as a
"source document" by the government.

The Lachmann group report was published in
September 1998, a month after Dr Pusztai first
expressed his concerns on British TV about their
safety, questioning government regulatory
procedures. Dr Pusztai's employer, the Rowett
Institute, had authorised the interview, but it
seized his data, forced him to retire and banned
him from speaking out.

In February, Prof Lachmann was one of the 19
Royal Society fellows who attacked Dr Pusztai's
work in an open letter. He and other key Royal
Society fellows have since been at the forefront of
defending GM technology and extolling its ability
to solve world hunger and provide safer food and
medicines.

His extensive CV includes a recent consultancy to
Geron Biomed, which markets the animal cloning
technology behind Dolly the sheep, and a
non-executive directorship for the biotech
company Adprotech. Prof Lachmann is also on the
scientific advisory board of the pharmaceutical
giant SmithKline Beecham, which invests heavily
in biotechnology. He denies any conflict of
interest, arguing that his expertise in the area
qualifies him to comment.

The first intervention came in March when the
Royal Society, which does not normally conduct
peer reviews, took the unusual decision to
scrutinise Dr Pusztai's work.

A group of reviewers, whom the society refuses to
name, concluded after examining incomplete data
that it appeared to be "flawed in many aspects of
design, execution and analysis".

Dr Horton wrote a Lancet editorial that month
accusing the Royal Society of "breathtaking
impertinence". Prof Lachmann, who was not
involved in this peer review, nevertheless
countered with a letter attacking the journal's
position as "absurd". Dr Horton published the
letter in July. At the same time, the Lancet was
considering whether to peer review and publish
the now famous paper by Dr Pusztai and Stanley
Ewen on the effect on the gut of rats fed GM
potatoes.

Dr Horton was also considering publishing a
second research paper by another team of
scientists. They had looked at the same GM protein
used in Dr Pusztai's potatoes and found that it
binds to human white blood cells. The health
implications must be further researched before
the GM protein is allowed into the food chain, the
paper recommended.

Dr Horton said he never expected what would
follow from his decision to promote scientific
debate by publishing both papers. He said there
was intense pressure on the Lancet from all
quarters, including the Royal Society, to suppress
publication. The campaign, he said, was "worthy
of Peter Mandelson".

The Guardian has learned that these interventions
are taking place in an unusual context. According
to a source the Royal Society science policy
division is being run as what appears to be a
rebuttal unit. The senior manager of the division
is Rebecca Bowden, who coordinated the highly
critical peer review of Dr Pusztai's work. She
joined the society in 1998, from the government
biotechnology unit at the department of the
environment, which controls the release of
genetically modified organisms.

The rebuttal unit is said by the source to operate a
database of like-minded Royal Society fellows who
are updated by email on a daily basis about GM
issues. The aim of the unit, according to the
source, is to mould scientific and public opinion
with a pro-biotech line. Dr Bowden confirmed
that her main role is to coordinate biotech policy
for the society, reporting to the president, Sir
Aaron Klug. However, she and Sir Aaron denied it
was a spin-doctoring operation.

In May a leaked government memo outlined how
its office of science and technology was compiling
a list of eminent scientists who were on message
to rebut criticism and underwrite the
government's unequivocal pro-biotech line.

The Guardian has established that the Royal
Society was involved in trying to prevent
publication of the Pusztai paper. This
intervention intensified when it learnt the paper
had been peer reviewed for the Lancet by six
scientists, Dr Horton told the Guardian.

The only reviewer arguing against publication
was John Pickett of the government-funded
Institute of Arable Crops Research.

Prof Pickett said that when he realised that Dr
Pusztai's paper had been accepted for publication,
he took his concerns to the Royal Society' s
biological secretary who told him the society was
already preparing a press release.

Five days before the Lancet published, an article
appeared in a national newspaper in which Prof
Pickett broke the protocols of peer review and
publicly attacked the Lancet for agreeing to
publish the Pusztai paper. Two days after the
spoiler article appeared, Prof Lachmann made his
phone call to the editor of the Lancet.

Dr Horton said the society had acted like a star
chamber throughout the Pusztai affair. "The Royal
Society has absolutely no remit to conduct that
sort of inquiry."

Sir Aaron said he knew nothing about the phone
call to Dr Horton and whoever spoke to the Lancet
editor was not doing so on the society's behalf.
However, he confirmed that the society had a
proof of the Pusztai paper before the Lancet
published it.

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