GM-Free Cymru, 20 May 2012
It has been revealed that Professor John Pickett, the team leader behind Rothamsted's controversial GM wheat trial, was one of the leading players in the destruction of a GM safety experiment more than 13 years ago. He did not need to pull up a GM crop.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to kill off a research project.
In 1998 Dr Arpad Pusztai and his colleagues at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen discovered that for some reason rats which consumed GM potatoes in a carefully controlled feeding experiment suffered from health damage (1). With the permission of the Director of the Institute Dr Pusztai gave an interview to Granada TV which was aired after a lag of seven weeks, on August 10th. In the brief interview the researcher voiced his concerns about his findings and said that he wished to complete the research and maybe instigate a follow-up project to confirm his data. He said afterwards that – as a responsible scientist – he wanted to alert the public to the possible dangers of eating GM food. All hell was let loose. There was a media frenzy, and politicians and the GM industry joined forces to denounce Pusztai as incompetent and irresponsible. The scientific community went into damage limitation mode, and set about the systematic destruction of Pusztai's research project and his reputation. His laboratory was closed, his team members were all dismissed, and Pusztai himself was sacked. His papers were confiscated, and for a time he was not allowed to speak to the press or to other scientists. The events of 1998 – 99 are too convoluted to recount in detail – but the Royal Society, which should have supported a highly respected and fastidious senior scientist, instead set about a carefully planned campaign of vilification dressed up as a "scientific review process." This was absolutely out of order, and completely unprecedented. To this day we do not know the full background to this, but there were certainly very powerful political and commercial interests involved; it is clear that neither the GM industry nor the British government could cope with the idea that GM crops and foods might in some way be harmful (2).
Throughout this period of sustained attack Dr Pusztai maintained his dignity while lesser scientists – including many Fellows of the Royal Society – prowled and snarled around him and lied about his work in briefings to the media. To this day they have never found anything fundamentally wrong with his research, and none of them have ever sought to repeat it – probably because none of them has the competence (3). There were several consequences to "The Pusztai Affair." One was that Arpad Pusztai – the small man mercilessly attacked by the scientific establishment – became the first "GM martyr" – lauded throughout the world simply because he spoke the truth. Another consequence was that the Royal Society became a laughing stock (4) because of its pathetic and frenzied attempts to find fault with Pusztai's project – which had after all been set up after a competitive tendering process and whose protocols had been subject to intense and ongoing peer review and scrutiny.
Third, it has been argued persuasively that this episode did irreparable harm to the reputation of British science, which had all too visibly allowed itself to be swayed by political and commercial pressures into a systematic misrepresentation of a careful and deeply worrying (from a public health point of view) piece of safety research. And fourth, the furore caused a mild concern about GM crops and foods in the UK to deepen into a solid antipathy, which continues to this day.
Where does John Pickett come into all of this? It is well documented that he was one of the Royal Society team who set out to destroy Pusztai's experiments and his reputation. It is not known what role he played in 1998, but in 1999 he was one of the reviewers of the paper written by Pusztai and Stanley Ewen which was later published in The Lancet. Pickett was the only one out of 6 reviewers who opposed publication, and when he discovered that the paper was to be published he initiated a spoiler article in The Independent newspaper under the headline "Scientists revolt at publication of flawed GM study". The article claimed that the paper had failed the peer review process. That was a lie. Below (5) there is a brief background to this affair.
It is deeply ironic that Pickett should now be involved in a high-pressure PR campaign orchestrated by the Rothamsted Research Press Office and Sense about Science under the title "Don't Destroy Research", since that is exactly what he and his colleagues set out to do in 1999. He has claimed that the Rothamsted GM wheat trial is "valid" because it is publicly funded and because it was grant aided through the normal UK research funding process. He has also claimed that those who threaten to "decontaminate" the GM wheat crop would be behaving undemocratically, since his project has gone through all of the appropriate regulatory procedures. And yet all that was also true of the Rowett Institute project led by Arpad Pusztai, which Pickett attacked with such vigour, presumably because he thought there was something wrong with it.
Commenting for GM-Free Cymru, Dr Brian John says: "We find it more than a little entertaining that this man is now pleading with protestors to enter into a scientific debate, and to allow his GM wheat trial to continue to completion. He is the very same person who joined a pack of Royal Society rottweilers back in 1999 to discredit an honest and highly respected senior scientist, to deny him the means of communication, and to shut down his research programme. He even broke academic convention by seeking publicly to "spoil" a learned article after himself taking part in the supposedly anonymous review process. Does he really expect anybody to take him seriously when he pleads "Don't Destroy Research"? In 1999 Richard Horton, the Editor of The Lancet, wrote of the "breathtaking impertinence" of the Royal Society Fellows who sought to put pressure on him to stop publication. We are tempted to use language a great deal more colourful than that, but since this might be read by sensitive souls, we will refrain.
Contact for further info: Dr Brian John, GM-Free Cymru. Tel 01239 820470