Science and Engineering Ethics (2003) 9, 49-57 Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 9, Issue 1, 200349 Keywords: knowledge economy, corporate funding of academic research, commercial confidentiality, Foresight Panels, scientific freedom ABSTRACT: The belief that science is “a driver of growth in the knowledge economy” has led in recent decades to increasing encouragement by government of the involvement of industry and of commerce in the sponsorship and direction of research in universities, and to the increasing influence of industrial representatives on advisory panels associated with the publicly funded scientific research councils. By extending the doctrine of commercial confidentiality into university laboratories, inconvenient findings have been suppressed, and both free endeavour and free speech undermined.
This has narrowed our scientific horizons and compromised government advisors.
It is argued that scientific freedom is a guarantor of our wider liberties. Science, which tells us who we are and how we can live better, is being distorted so twisting our understanding of the ways in which we might progress, shutting off alternatives to existing models of development. Business now stands as a guard dog at the gates of perception. Only the inquiries which suit its needs are allowed to pass.
Science, the government insists, is “a driver of growth in the knowledge economy”. 1 I don’t think many people would dispute this. Much of our recent economic growth is the result of high-tech industry, emerging from scientific innovation and discovery.
The conclusions the government draws from this are rather more contestable. If science is to continue to drive growth, it reasons, then the funding of science must be tailored to the needs of business. This may, in the short term, be true. But it is surely obvious that this approach leads to the narrowing of scientific horizons, as researchers pursue precise technological outcomes, rather than spending decades on the speculative * More information on the same theme can be found in the author’s book Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. September 2000, Macmillan, London.
This paper was presented at the conference “Corruption of Scientific Integrity?—The Commercialisation of Academic Science”, The British Academy, 2 May 2001 . Address for correspondence: George Monbiot, 82 Percy Street, Oxford OX4 3AD, UK.
1353-3452 © 2002 Opragen Publications, POB 54, Guildford GU1 2YF, UK. http://www.opragen.co.uk Guard Dogs of Perception: The Corporate Takeover of Science * George Monbiot G. Monbiot 50Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 9, Issue 1, 2003 quests which might lead to major scientific breakthroughs. In the long-term, this constriction could damage not only scientific success, but also economic competitiveness.
But for the past ten years, government science policy has steadily de-prioritised basic research and prioritised commercial imperatives. Many of the profound changes in the way science in Britain is funded were introduced by the Conservative Government’s 1993 White Paper on science, called Realizing Our Potential. 2 Its purpose was “to produce a better match between publicly-funded strategic research and the needs of industry.” 2 The research councils, which distribute most of the money for science, would be obliged to develop “more extensive and deeper links … with industry”. 2 In 1994, the Government established its “Foresight Panels”, teams of business people and academics who would “identify … emerging opportunities in markets” 3 and advise ministers and guide the allocation of government money. In 1995, the Office of Science and Technology was moved from the Government’s Cabinet Office to the Department of Trade and Industry. “What the change means,” the science minister explained, “is that we in Government recognise the vital need to bring industry and academe closer together.” 4 These reforms were extended by the Labour administration. Its 1998 White Paper on competitiveness launched a “reach-out fund”, to encourage universities to “work more effectively with business”. 5 In the same year the Government resuscitated the dormant Council for Science and Technology, its most important source of scientific advice. Appointed by the Prime Minister, this council contains seven university academics and six industrialists. The role of the higher education funding councils, which provide the core money for the universities, was redefined “to ensure that higher education is responsive to the needs of business and industry.” 6 The July 2000 white paper on science and innovation policy took this a step further, announcing a “Higher Education Reach Out to Business and the Community fund” whose purpose is “to increase universities’ capabilities to work with industry”, 1 a doubling of the number of new Faraday Partnerships, “to link the science base to business networks” 1 and a further £15 million for Science Enterprise Centres, “to bring business skills into the science curriculum.” 1 The government, it revealed, would “support 20 Business Fellows who will lead their academic colleagues in working with business.” 1 All this has a profound effect on both academic freedom and scientific integrity. In December 1998, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals announced that the universities they ran would no longer take money for cancer research from the tobacco industry. The companies’ backing, they had decided, “is not likely to be viewed as disinterested and will consequently damage the university’s standing and reputation.” 7 It seems astonishing that they had been taking this money in the first place. But while this, the most controversial source of industrial funding, was discontinued, the business sponsorship of other areas of research has expanded. Why funding from other corporate sectors should “be viewed as disinterested” and not likely to “damage the university’s standing and reputation” has never been satisfactorily explained by the vice-chancellors. But I have been unable to find a university anywhere in the United Guard Dogs of Perception: The Corporate Takeover of Science Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 9, Issue 1, 200351 Kingdom which does not accept corporate money for research in which the companies involved have an immediate interest.
The University of Cambridge, for example, possesses a Shell Chair in chemical engineering, BP professorships in organic chemistry and petroleum science, an ICI chair in applied thermodynamics, a Glaxo chair of molecular parisitology, a Unilever chair of molecular science, a Price Waterhouse chair of financial accounting, a Marks and Spencer chair of farm animal health and food science and a GKN Professor of Manufacturing Engineering. It accepted a £1.6 million endowment from BAT Industries to establish the “Sir Patrick Sheehy Chair of International Relations”. (Sir Patrick Sheehy was British American Tobacco’s chairman). Rolls-Royce, AT&T, Microsoft and Zeneca have all set up laboratories in the university.
In June 1999, BP gave the university £25 million, to fund work across five departments. In November 1999, Cambridge set up an £84 million joint venture, funded largely by the British government, partly by industry, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its purpose is to “change the face of business and wealth creation in the UK”, 8 by stimulating “research spin-offs” and “training the business leaders of the future”.9 Cambridge’s vice-chancellor explained, “We may once have been thought of as an ivory tower—today we are a tower of hi-technology and business prowess.” 8 The independent researchers Greg Muttitt and Chris Grimshaw have examined the influence of oil companies on British science. 10 They identified nearly 1000 research projects being conducted for oil and gas firms. Some university faculties, they discovered, had become largely dependent upon industrial money. Aberdeen’s Geology Department for example, boasts that “Industrial contracts and sponsorship now account for more than two thirds of our research income, support over one third of our lecturing staff, fund nearly all our postgraduates, and even provide appropriate components of our undergraduate training.” 11 There are BP professorships, fellowships or lectureships at seven British universities, including both Oxford and Cambridge. A director of BP sits on the Council for Science and Technology. Until 1998, the Director General of the UK’s Research Councils was Sir John Cadogan, formerly BP’s research director. The chairman and chief executive of Esso UK sits on the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
One result of such corporate involvement, Muttitt and Grimshaw found, was a significant distortion of the research agenda. Five times as much money is spent in British universities on research into oil and gas than on research into renewable sources of energy. This establishes an inverse relationship between research needs and research funds. 10 Renewable energy, which is an emerging industry, requires a great deal of research as it approaches its take-off phase. Oil and gas extraction, a mature industry, could be expected to need far less.
David Whyte of Liverpool John Moores University recorded a conversation with a health and safety researcher at a university department partly funded by oil companies.
The researcher had discovered that one of the companies had been falsifying its own accident figures. “When I ask these guys [the senior managers of oil companies] about why the accident rates are changed for their own records,” the researcher revealed, G. Monbiot 52Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 9, Issue 1, 2003 “they tell me to shut up. Of course I do. Because you can’t challenge what they say if you want to keep credibility.” 12 Some government funding bodies appear to share this belief. After exposing the way in which university departments funded by the oil industry have adapted their work to suit the needs of their patrons, David Whyte was called into the office of a senior manager at the Health and Safety Executive, a government body which funds university research into safety on the oil rigs. He accused Dr. Whyte of “misrepresenting the truth” and lectured him on the importance of the North Sea oil industry to the British economy. “We have a large pool of research funds,” he revealed.
“Six million pounds is a lot of money, you know. … It would be very difficult to win this money for Merseyside.” “Obviously,” he warned, “you would have to be very careful about the way you put things.” 12 Money buys influence throughout the scientific community. In 1998, a team of Canadian researchers studied a series of contributions to academic journals on the subject of a class of drugs called “calcium channel blockers”. 13 The drugs, which are used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease, are controversial: some doctors believe that at least one of them is dangerous, increasing the risk of heart attacks. The researchers examined 70 articles in medical journals by scientists studying these drugs.
They found that 96 percent of those who supported their use had financial relationships with the manufacturers, as opposed to just 37 percent of those who criticised them.
Disturbingly, only two of the authors of these papers divulged their connections. 13 A survey conducted by the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists in 2000 found that 30 percent of the scientists working for Government agencies or newly privatised laboratories reported that they have been asked to adjust their conclusions to suit the sponsors of their research. 14 Seventeen percent said they had been asked to change their conclusions to suit the customer’s preferred outcome. Ten percent said they had been asked to do so to obtain further contracts. Three percent had been asked to change their conclusions in order to “discourage publication of their results”. 14 It’s not hard to see how such distortions affect the public as well as the integrity of science. One of the most disgraceful recent examples was the British Dental Association’s endorsement of a drink called Ribena Tooth Kind, produced by SmithKline Beecham. The manufacturer used the BDA’s accreditation to claim in its £10 million advertising campaign that Ribena Tooth Kind “does not encourage tooth decay” and is “scientifically proven not to promote tooth erosion.” 15 Hundreds of thousands of parents bought it for that reason.
In the High Court in January, a judicial review found that these claims were not justified by expert evidence. Independent tests at the University of Zurich should that Ribena Tooth Kind has “cariogenic potential”. 16 Tests at the University of Glasgow showed that the erosion caused by the drink as “virtually identical” to that of ordinary Ribena. 15 So why on earth had the British Dental Association endorsed it? Well it might have something to do with the fact that two of the four members of its food and drink accreditation panel had been paid by SmithKline Beecham to conduct research on Ribena Tooth Kind. 15 Guard Dogs of Perception: The Corporate Takeover of Science Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 9, Issue 1, 200353 But while the acceptance of corporate money might encourage researchers to change the way they view the world, the acceptance of public money is now scarcely less hazardous.
The main source of public funds for the biologists working in Britain’s universities is the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, or BBSRC. When I conducted a survey of its membership eighteen months ago, its chairman was Peter Doyle, who was also an executive director of the biotechnology company Zeneca.
Among the members of its council were the chief executive of a pharmaceutical firm; a former director of the controversial food company Nestlé; the President of the Food and Drink Federation; a consultant to the biochemical industry and the general manager of Britain’s biggest farming business. The BBSRC’s strategy board contained executives from SmithKline Beecham, Merck Sharpe and Dohme and AgrEvo UK, the company hoping to be the first to commercialise genetically engineered crops in Britain. The research council had seven specialist committees, overseeing the dispersal of money to different branches of biology. Employees of Zeneca, according to the council’s website, sat on all of them. 17 The BBSRC’s purpose, according to its mission statement, “is to sustain a broad base of interdisciplinary research and training to help industry, commerce and Government create wealth and improve the quality of life.” 17 Public statements by the research council’s chief executive, Professor Ray Baker, suggest that he is taking this mandate seriously. The council’s press releases fall into three categories: news about the research grants it allocates; news about the findings resulting from those grants; and fierce attacks on the critics of genetic engineering.
When, for example, Friends of the Earth and the BBC’s Newsnight programme released the results of research showing that pollen from genetically modified rape was being carried four and half kilometres by bees, Ray Baker used a BBSRC press release to claim that the finding was “a distraction from the key issues”. 18 When the trustees of a farm carrying out a field trial of GM rape decided to stop the experiment, Professor Baker issued a statement insisting that there was “no risk of cross-pollination” with “organic oilseed rape, as it is not grown in the UK”. 19 Unfortunately he forgot to add that there was a near certainty that the GM rape would cross-pollinate with non- organic, unmodified, rape plants, as well as a clear possibility that it would exchange genetic material with its wild relatives. Professor Baker, in other words, has been using a government research body as a platform for contentious and in some cases misleading political statements, which appear to favour the interests of the biotechnology companies. It is worth noting that one of the tasks of the chief executive of the BBSRC is to provide impartial scientific advice to the Government.
Unlike Professor Baker, the scientists working in university departments receiving BBSRC grants are formally gagged to prevent them becoming “involved in political controversy in matters affecting research in biotechnology and biological sciences.” 20 In practice the gagging order is used only against scientists who rock the corporate boat. This became clear when Dr. Arpad Puzstai, a geneticist working at an institute funded by the research council, challenged the safety of genetically engineered foods.
His claims may not have been supportable, but nor were some of those made by the G. Monbiot 54Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 9, Issue 1, 2003 scientists from BBSRC-funded laboratories who spoke out against him. Unlike Dr.
Puzstai, none of them was suspended for speaking to the media. “Political controversy” appears to mean positions with which the BBSRC council members disagree.
Far more disturbing than the infiltration of the research councils, however, are the priorities of the Office of Science and Technology’s 16 Foresight Panels.
The Foresight Panels scarcely pretend to promote either academic objectivity or the wider public interest. Though they are official sources of scientific advice to both central Government and to the research councils, they are largely controlled not by scientists but by business people.
The Food and Drink Foresight Panel, for example, is composed of eight representatives of food companies and trade bodies, and three members of university departments, as well as members of the BBSRC and the Medical Research Council, which are expected to respond to its demands. It has several sub-committees, whose purpose is to identify “research priorities”. One is called the Alcoholic Drinks panel.
The report it produced was drawn up in consultation with five trade associations, three industry-sponsored research institutes, fifteen drinks companies and no one else. Its report called for “a sophisticated understanding of individuals’ eating and drinking behaviour” to assist “product development”. 21 It called for research which would help drinks companies to resist “unnecessary barriers to innovation and burdens on the industry” caused by regulation. 21 The report of the Fruit and Vegetables sub-committee suggested that “Irradiation may be re-examined for extending shelf life.” 22 The Meat sub-committee complained bitterly that “criticisms of meat production from an animal welfare and environmental impact perspective, and of high levels of red meat consumption as potentially damaging to human health, gained credence from some scientific work”. 23 Until the day before he became minister for science and technology, another sub- committee, called “The Food Chain Group”, was chaired by Lord Sainsbury. His report, published by the Government’s Department of Trade and Industry, hoped that in the future “the expensive precautionary principle is abandoned”. 24 Lord Sainsbury attended a “Food Chain Group Summit” in March 1998, which concluded that this Government-funded research programme should involve “Influencing and anticipating future behaviour of consumers.” 25 Interestingly, the summit went on to lament the “falling consumer confidence in science”. 25 It wouldn’t have had to look far to see why this might be happening.
The Food and Drink Foresight Panel’s recommendations are already bearing fruit.
“The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food,” the panel notes, “has undertaken a comprehensive review of its programmes in the light of the panel’s report. Much of the research it supports is closely aligned with the panel’s recommendations.” 26 It has also, it claims, been able to influence the agenda of several of the research councils. The BBSRC, for example, now has “a much more explicit emphasis on consumer science, a priority topic identified by the panel.” 26 The Retail and Consumer Services Foresight Panel has made a similarly selfless contribution to scientific inquiry. Chaired by Sir John Banham, the head of Tarmac, it warns of the “potentially dire” impact of growing concerns about the environment. 27 Guard Dogs of Perception: The Corporate Takeover of Science Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 9, Issue 1, 200355 The consequences of these concerns, such as “increasing difficulty in carrying out green field developments coupled with attempts to restrict traffic and reduce congestion” would result, inexplicably, in “fewer women … working”, “cuts in state pensions” and a collapse in living standards. 27 It has drawn up an “Agenda for Social Science Research”: the taxpayer was asked to finance studies into “the patterns of choice and behaviour which affect the consumption of certain goods.” 27 Since 1998, the Government has doubled its financial support for the Foresight Panels. Last year’s white paper announced a further £15 million for a new Foresight Fund. At the same time, government research programmes looking at wider and arguably more important questions than how best to rip off the consumer are being closed down. Last year the government announced the dissolution of the Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences (CCMS), which was responsible for the long term monitoring of climate change, pollution and the impact of other human activities on the marine environment. The centre had to be closed, the government announced, because “a continuing decline in external funding has made the financial position of CCMS unsustainable in the long term.” 28 There’s no government money for the centre, in other words, because there’s no corporate money. But no one in government has explained why it should expect to find corporate money for the long term monitoring of problems caused by corporations. The signal from government is clear: if the business community doesn’t like what you’re doing, don’t bother applying for public funds.
As big business infiltrates the research agenda, ever wider zones of inquiry are placed off-limits. In 1999, the Government published a white paper on public health called Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation. 29 The only atmospheric pollutant named in the report is radon. It also happens to be one of the only pollutants in Britain which does not result from the activities of large corporations: it is naturally occurring. The report warns us about the dangers of cancer resulting from “exposure to radon gas in certain homes or excessive sunlight”, 29 but nuclear power stations are not mentioned, and nor are any other chemicals. The white paper informs us that the Government hosted “the largest ever Ministerial conference on environment and health” in 1999. 29 It fails to tell us that the links between cancer and industrial pollution were dropped from the agenda soon before the meeting began.
Over the past few years, there has been no shortage of claims that environmental and consumer campaigners distort science. There’s no question that some people have made exaggerated statements. But these distortions are both occasional and contestable.
The corporate distortion of science, by comparison, is systematic and mostly invisible.
By extending the doctrine of commercial confidentiality into our laboratories, it suppresses inconvenient findings. It undermines both free endeavour and free speech.
Scientific freedom is a guarantor of our wider liberties. Science tells us who we are and how we can live better. It is the glass through which we perceive the world. If distorted, it twists our understanding of the ways in which we might progress, of the alternatives to existing models of development.
But our scientific horizons have narrowed. The government’s advisors are compromised, the ministers who listen to them are biased. Business now stands as a G. Monbiot 56Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 9, Issue 1, 2003 guard dog at the gates of perception. Only the inquiries which suit its needs are allowed to pass.
Some people have suggested that my attacks on science policy mean that I am antagonistic to scientists, even anti-science. But, as I hope this presentation has made clear, the primary victims of the corporate takeover of science are science and the scientists themselves.
Tragically, many scientists have responded to criticism not by siding with the public against the prostitution of their profession, but by siding with their corporate backers against the public. With the help of a little imagination we should surely be working together, to ensure that the scientists get their freedom, while the public gets research which helps us rather than harming us. We need a revolution in our laboratories, to overthrow the corrupt new lords of learning.
REFERENCES 1. Department of Trade and Industry (July 2000) White Paper. Excellence and Opportunity: a science and innovation policy for the 21 st Century. Stationery Office, London 2. Office of Science and Technology (1993) White Paper. Realising Our Potential, a strategy for science, engineering and technology. Stationery Office, London.
3. http://www.foresight.gov.uk/about.html 4. Taylor, I. (1995) A change for the better? Science & Public Affairs, Autumn.
5. Department of Trade and Industry, London (1998) White Paper, Our Competitive Future:
building the knowledge driven economy. http://www.dti.gov.uk/comp/competitive/wh_int1.htm 6. e.g. Department of Trade and Industry http://dtiinfo1.dti.gov.uk/ost/forwardlook99/states/hefcdeni/text.htm. May 2000.
7. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the UK, quoted in The Times, 15 th December 1998.
8. Professor Sir Alec Broers, Vice-Chancellor, Cambridge University, 8th November 1999. Quoted in Cambridge University Press Release. Cambridge and MIT: Torchbearers to UK’s Enterprise Future – World’s Top Two Research and Business Giants Join Forces for an International Enterprise Partnership.
9. Cambridge University, 8th November 1999. Press Release. Cambridge and MIT: Torchbearers to UK’s Enterprise Future – World’s Top Two Research and Business Giants Join Forces for an International Enterprise Partnership.
10. Greg Muttitt and Chris Grimshaw, 2000. Degrees of Involvement: An examination of the relationship between the upstream oil and gas industry and UK higher education institutions.
Published by CorporateWatch.
11. The Geology and Petroleum Geology Department University of Aberdeen, Department of Geology & Petroleum Geology, ‘Staff directory’, on worldwide website http://www/abdn.ac.uk/geology/staff/staffdir.htm, cited in Greg Muttitt and Chris Grimshaw, as reference 10.
12. David Whyte, 30 th May 1998. Power, Corruption and Lies: the World According to the UK Oil and Gas Industry. Paper presented to the OILC National Conference, Patio Hotel, Aberdeen.
13. Stelfox, H. et al (8 January 1998) Conflict of Interest in the Debate over Calcium-Channel Antagonists. New England Journal of Medicine 338 (2): 101-106.
14. Reported in the Daily Telegraph, 14 th February 2000.
15. Action and Information on Sugars, 12th July 2000. Press release: Ribena Tooth Kind Dental Safety Claims “Misleading”. Guard Dogs of Perception: The Corporate Takeover of Science Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 9, Issue 1, 200357 16. Action and Information on Sugars,19 th January 2001. Press release: Ribena Misled Customers – Final.
17. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk, 21 st January 2000.
18. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, 30 September 1999. Press Release.
GM pollen findings are “not new”.
19. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, 7 June 1999. Press Release. BBSRC regrets destruction of GM crop.
20. BBSRC staff contract, leaked to GeneWatch and quoted by Norfolk Genetic Information Network, 18 February 1999. Press Release: Scientists gagged on GM foods by public funding body with big links to industry.
21. Department of Trade and Industry. Foresight for Food and Drink: Alcoholic Drinks http://22.214.171.124/documents/fsze00004/fsze0000410.html. January 2000.
22. Department of Trade and Industry. Foresight for Food and Drink: Fruit and Vegetables.
http://126.96.36.199/documents/fsze00007/fsze000075.html, January 2000.
23. Department of Trade and Industry. Foresight for Food and Drink: Meat.
http://www.foresight.gov.uk. January 2000.
24. Foresight Programme, Department of Trade and Industry (March 1998) Food Chain Group Report.
25. Department of Trade and Industry. The Food Chain Group – Shaping the Future of the Food Industry. http://www.foresight.gov.uk. http://poynter.indiana.edu/sas/lb .
26. Department of Trade and Industry, Winning through Foresight: Action for Food & Drink.
27. Department of Trade and Industry (January 2000) Progress Through Partnership: 15 – Retail & Distribution. http://188.8.131.52/retail/retail2005.html.
28. Natural Environment Research Council, 3rd July 2000. Press release: Research Centre To Be Disbanded.
29. Department of Health (July 1999) White Paper. Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation. Stationery Office, London.