« Open Source Convention | Main | Math Awareness Month: April 2004 »

Basic Science Research Threatened by Corporate Agendas

This article was buried on page D3 of Sunday's Chronicle. It illustrates what I consider to be a dangerous practice of letting commercial interests interfere with scientific safety. The basic research scientist strives to solve a small part of the big puzzle, and academia is supposed to provide a safe haven for this. While basic science lacks the glamor of "big science", it is the back bone of all science and technology.

What troubles me most about this article is the possibility that an eminent journal like Nature would take action against a peer-reviewed report without bothering to check the authenticity of email attacking the report:

After an aggressive public relations campaign mounted for Monsanto by the Bivings Group, a global PR firm that began with a vicious e-mail attack mounted by two "scientists" who turned out to be fictitious, Nature editors did something they had never done in their 133 years of existence. They published a cautious partial retraction of the Chapela report. Largely on the strength of that retraction, Chapela was recently denied tenure at UC Berkeley and informed that he would not be reoffered his teaching assignment in the fall.
~Biotech critics at risk / Economics calls the shots in the debate

Comments

Whew, it's lucky that the Chron isn't a business, and that author Mark Dowie has no vested interest in this area too, huh...? ;-)

I'm being wickedly ironic here... post-modernism cuts both ways, and I believe it's important to let the best arguments play out together. But it gets expensive for each of us to filter out and compare base evidence, such as Pusztai's homepage compared to external critique.

The miso I buy in Nihonmachi says "Non-GMO" on the label, and this seems a good way to accommodate diversity in personal conclusions, true...?

John, I admit that the headline comes across as more sensational than intended...but they are the best words I could think of to describe the post :-)

My concern is the interference that these particular corporations are exerting on basic science, as if it were an issue of "public relations". When they put resources behind a chemical compound, they are gambling. That's the nature of the business. If they went to Las Vegas, do you think the casino would allow them to count cards?

While making an effort to buy non-GMO products is important, unfortunately it may not be as effective as we'd like it to be. All it takes is a breeze to carry the pollen from a GMO field to a non-GMO field and all that's left is GMO. But this is much like the argument about second-hand smoke, and may be difficult to carry strongly...until it's too late.

Back to the article: one would think that a major science research journal like Nature would check the identity of critics of a peer-reviewed article before taking unprecedented action. The peer-review process is fairly rigorous. Basically, the editor sends your article to experts in your field, and related fields, and they pick it apart for the editor. The editor then decides if the article is print-worthy, and if so, sends the required changes to the author(s). While the author might not know who the reviewers are, the editor definitely does.

For a journal to bypass this whole process, without checking if an unsolicited criticism (in academic sense) is from a qualified source, is very troubling.