Time for a better debate about industry science, and so-called 'conflicts of interest'
Professor Tina Barsby OBE
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
A recent paper in Nature Food, entitled “An approach to conflicts of interest in UK food regulatory institutions” by Tim Lang and Erik Millstone, effectively calls for a ban on government scientific advisers in the food and agriculture sectors having any links to industry.
Without a hint of the irony at play, the paper was further amplified by Erik Millstone in a blog entitled “Can UK food safety regulators be trusted?” on the website of anti-pesticide lobby group PAN-UK. No conflict of interest there, then.
Other than to court controversy and publicity, it is not entirely clear why Nature Food saw fit to publish what amounts to a simple desk review of publicly available information about the membership of government scientific advisory committees and their declared interests, punctuated by the authors’ apparent prejudice against scientists working in industry.
The review is certainly short on any evidence to support the authors’ repeated inference that declared links with industry can seriously threaten standards of public and environmental safety, by subordinating protection of the public interest to commercial interests and ‘regulatory capture’. The authors provide no evidence of past decisions which have jeopardised environmental or public safety, or which went against the scientific evidence and were found to have been unduly influenced by advisory committee members with conflicted interests.
In short, the article constitutes an ill-judged attack on the relationship between scientists working in the public and the private sector, and unfairly calls into question the integrity of highly-respected individuals serving in the public interest as independent specialists on Government advisory committees, with little or no evidence to support this position. Scientists rely wholeheartedly on evidence.
Importantly, the authors also misrepresent, or at least fail to understand, the established process of agricultural innovation whose success absolutely hinges on knowledge exchange and interaction between academic science and industry.
As Defra Minister Lord Benyon pointed out in relation to the membership of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) during a recent debate on the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill: “If we want to get the best people in this field, it is very likely that, at some point, they have done a piece of work for an academic institution or company—it is very hard to find someone who has not. Frankly, I would want people with real expertise and who are governed by very strict rules, as outlined by the Nolan principles.”
But the Nature Food article, and the fact that some MPs and Peers saw fit to question the integrity and impartiality of advisory committee members with declared industry interests during the passage of the Genetic Technology Bill, speaks volumes about the quality of current debate around innovation in food and agriculture.
As a plant scientist who has worked in both commercial and public sector roles, I am increasingly concerned at the creeping narrative that ‘industry science’ is in some way tainted and less trustworthy than ‘academic science’, and by implication that scientists working in industry roles would routinely sacrifice scientific integrity at the altar of profit or commercial success.
Consumer research commissioned last year by Science for Sustainable Agriculture confirmed this trend, with respondents indicating that they would be more than twice as likely to trust information about agricultural innovation from public sector scientists compared to those working in industry.
This perception of commercial science as untrustworthy, or lacking the integrity and rigour of academic science, is of particular concern in the agricultural sector, where industry provides the primary route to market for new agricultural inputs, technologies and knowhow, and where continued scientific innovation is urgently needed to tackle the ever-increasing challenges of food and nutrition security, climate change and sustainable development.
It is perhaps also worth noting that the most egregious examples of flawed and misleading science in relation to agriculture and food have occurred in the public sector, amid highly-publicised claims that GMOs promote toxins (Arpad Putztai) or cause cancer in rats (Gilles-Eric Seralini), claims which were subsequently dismissed comprehensively by the scientific community - in industry, yes, but mainly in academia.
Unjustified and unsubstantiated criticisms such as those of Lang and Millstone are also potentially damaging, not only in deterring our best scientists from serving on expert advisory committees, but also by demeaning the established process of successful agricultural innovation for societal good.
Scientific advances in agriculture have a history of close links between industry and public sector research, much of which dates back to the mid-1980s and the implementation of the Barnes review which saw the closure or privatisation of many applied agricultural research facilities, from public sector plant breeding at the Plant Breeding institute in Cambridge purchased as a going concern by Unilever, to dedicated research institutes covering topics as diverse as soil, horticulture, weeds and agricultural engineering. Regardless of whether the Barnes Review was enlightened or ill-advised, the scientists working in those public sector organisations did not disappear overnight. The vast majority transferred to similar positions in industry, in line with Barnes’ philosophy that the private sector, rather than the state, should take the lead in applied and near-market research in agriculture.
Over the past few decades, several public sector organisations have been taken into private ownership. Are Lang and Millstone seriously suggesting that the scientists who continued working there suddenly became corrupt and untrustworthy after their employers switched from public to private sector ownership?
British agriculture has a long tradition of interaction and partnership between public sector research institutes and industry – often as a direct result of public R&D funding mechanisms. Many current Innovate UK and Defra funded programmes require industry to collaborate and match-fund, to deliver research and innovation at farm level. This is because they recognise that without these linkages, science will never reach the farmer and consumer. These programmes are specifically designed to bring scientists working in industry and academia closer together. The process of innovation benefits as a result. These programmes set out to strengthen partnerships between public sector science and industry, by supporting the translation of new scientific knowledge into the products and technologies needed to deliver improvements in the productivity, sustainability and climate resilience of UK farming and food production.
As Lord Benyon intimated, given the umbilical link which exists between public and private sector research in the agriculture sector, scientists with no experience of working with industry are very unlikely to offer the relevant expertise or knowledge to serve effectively on the government’s scientific advisory committees.
Personally, I find it deeply offensive to have my scientific integrity or trustworthiness called into question because I have links with industry. Science is a training, and the importance of properly controlled experiments is integral to our approach. We are trained to be objective. The science we conduct in a commercial context is subject to the same rigour as academic science, and is also then subject to the important question of whether it brings value to society as a whole. After all, people don’t pay for esoteric information and they expect those industries which serve them to provide safe, affordable food, which demonstrably they do! We stand by our scientific integrity, even at the expense of our reputation and our careers.
I find myself agreeing with the views of Brussels-based commentator David Zaruk, writing as the Risk-Monger, who observes in a series of recent articles entitled ‘The Industry Complex’ that environmental NGOs are engaged in an active campaign to discredit industry science, and to ensure that no researcher or expert with any industry background should be allowed to advise or participate in EU policy discussions.
Despairing of what he calls industry’s ‘second slowest zebra’ mentality (i.e. simply relieved to escape a mauling at the hands of activists), Zaruk issues a rallying call for industry to stand up and speak with one voice, warning that:
“Europe is becoming less competitive, less conducive to research, less productive and less successful on many industrial fronts. Companies are now facing unnecessary costs and restrictions, many are leaving and producing or researching in other parts of the world, consumers are paying more and getting less. Farmers are working harder for lower yields (and increased food imports). Europe is losing out because of bad policies that have been rooted in an anti-industry, anti-technology, anti-growth ideology.”
Unless applied science stands up to the likes of Lang and Millstone, and, furthermore, to all anti-science NGOs and campaigners, Britain could face a similar trajectory, ditching science for ideology. So where do we go from here?
Tina Barsby is a plant geneticist and a former CEO of NIAB, where she led the implementation of innovative approaches to plant breeding, including the first public-good wheat breeding programme in the UK since the privatisation of the Plant Breeding Institute in 1987. She was awarded an Honorary Professorship in Agricultural Botany by the University of Cambridge in 2021. Tina is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group.