Conflicts Around a Study of Mexican Crops
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BELOW ARE FOUR LETTERS APPEARING IN THE LATEST ISSUE OF NATURE (27 JUNE, 2002) CONCERNING THE MEXICAN MAIZE STUDY AND ITS "RETRACTION," FOLLOWED BY A COMMENT BY THE EDITORS OF NATURE.
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CONFLICTS AROUND A STUDY OF MEXICAN CROPS
Sir Scientific endeavour is based on formation and testing of hypotheses. Very few hypotheses persist unmodified after they are first proposed; most are tested, modified and re-tested, and often refuted. Many journals include a forum for scientists to make technical comments on recent publications and for the original authors to respond, so that readers can evaluate the merit of reported scientific findings.
The cornerstones of a rigorous publication process are the subject editor, who is familiar with the research area of a submitted manuscript, and the independent outside reviewers whose recommendations are solicited by the subject editor. This thorough evaluation ensures, to some extent, the journal's impartiality in publication decisions.
Despite this rigorous process, however, Nature recently published a technical exchange1-3 accompanied by an editorial note stating: "Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper".
In our view this statement reflects poorly on Nature's editorial policy and review process, and sets a dangerous precedent. Why has Nature refrained from releasing similar editorial retractions of earlier publications later found to be incorrect or open to alternative interpretations? What sets this particular publication apart? If the interpretation of the results proposed by the authors of the original paper4 was judged by Nature to be sufficiently erroneous to warrant this editorial statement, why did Nature publish the report in the first place?
By taking sides in such an unambiguous manner, Nature risks losing its impartial and professional status. This is particularly troubling when articles are related to economic or political interests. Nature asks its contributors to provide information regarding conflicts of interest, but does Nature hold itself to the same standards?
Andrew V. Suarez
Other signatories to this letter:
Mike Benard, Neil D. Tsutsui Department of Evolution and Ecology, Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, USA
Todd A. Blackledge Department of Entomology, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA
Kirsten Copren, Eli M. Sarnat, Alex L. Wild Department of Entomology, University of California, Davis, USA
Wayne M. Getz, Philip T. Starks, Kipling Will, Per J. Palsbøll Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, USA
Mark E. Hauber Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, USA
Craig Moritz Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, USA
Adam D. Richman Department of Plant Science and Plant Pathology, Montana State University, USA
Sir The controversy surrounding Quist and Chapela's findings of transgenic introgression in Mexican maize1-4 is taking place within webs of political and financial influence that compromise the objectivity of their critics.
The eight authors of the two published criticisms1, 2 of Quist and Chapela's paper4 have had all or part of their research funded by the Torrey Mesa Research Institute (TMRI), an offspring of the agricultural biotechnology company Novartis (now Syngenta).
The affiliation of seven of those authors with TMRI is a result of that company's $25-million 'strategic alliance' with the University of California (UC), Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. Wilhelm Gruissem, formerly of UC, Berkeley and architect of the strategic alliance, whose laboratory is in partnership with TMRI, is the supervisor of the eighth author, Johannes Fütterer. None of the eight authors declares this funding as a competing financial interest in their published contributions.
Such a funding arrangement might be less noteworthy had Chapela and Quist not been leading critics of the strategic alliance and its implications for scientific freedom and balance. Their vocal opposition to the alliance jeopardized a large flow of financial support for the authors of the criticisms.
Compromised positions extend beyond those of these critics. Nature Publishing Group actively integrates its interests with those of companies invested in agricultural and other biotechnology, such as Novartis, AstraZeneca and other 'sponsorship clients', soliciting them to "promote their corporate image by aligning their brand with the highly respected Nature brand" (see http://npg.nature.com). These partnerships seem to us to challenge Nature's ability to provide a neutral forum for scientific debates on agricultural biotechnology.
Nature's editorial note disavowing Quist and Chapela's work in the same issue as the technical exchanges1-3 was unorthodox and unnecessary. The usual scientific process of contestation should have been permitted to proceed, using Quist and Chapela's claims and data alone to repeat, verify or refute their findings. Because of its potential effect on regulatory policy, publication of the technical exchanges and Nature's editorial note immediately before the UNEP Convention on Biological Diversity meeting and discussions of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (where Nature's editorial note was mentioned) further undermines the journal's stance as uncompromised by commercial interests.
In such an environment, it is difficult to imagine fair consideration being given to work that challenges commercially vested interests and the assumptions of reductionist molecular biology. Quist and Chapela's paper obviously represents such a challenge. That fact — not the quality of their work — together with the politics of universityindustry relations, remains central to their paper's troubled reception.
The agricultural biotechnology industry undermines its own credibility by not aggressively evaluating the health and environmental implications of its products. The public will remain sceptical until it does so.
We call on scientists, Nature and other scientific journals to re-examine their commitment to agricultural biotechnology as well as their own conflicts of interest, and to actively encourage a balanced, critical evaluation of the ecological and health effects of the flow of transgenes into the environment.
For further analysis, see http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~kenw/maize/compromised.htm.
Richard C. Strohman
Paul R. Billings
Statement of competing financial interests: the authors are recipients of educational grants from and/or employees of the University of California, Berkeley, which could lose financially from publication of this Correspondence as a result of its strategic alliance with TMRI/Syngenta.
Metz and Fütterer Reply
- The accusations of Worthy et al. about our Brief Communication1 do not relate to the scientific data of Quist and Chapela4. Our concern was exclusively over the quality of the scientific data and conclusions, which would have been the same whatever the motivation of the criticism.
Bad science can only undermine our understanding of nature, and the making of constructive public policy. The statement that "commercially vested interests" (that is, ties to Syngenta/ Novartis) are "central to" criticisms of the data in ref. 4 is as useless in addressing the scientific issues as would be an accusation that these data were tainted by a grudge between Chapela and his former employer (the same company). Although our connections to industry are irrelevant to the scientific issues, and hence do not warrant disclosure, we feel compelled to dispel the mischaracterization of Worthy et al.. One of us (M. M.) had TMRI funding for only one-sixth of his study at UC Berkeley, and the other's (J. F.) alleged link to TMRI relies entirely on someone else's former Berkeley association. Both of us currently have research funding exclusively from the public sector.
We are not unlike many scientists in that we have shared research and funding with industry at some point. In stating that we have "compromised positions", Worthy et al. wrongly imply that private-sector funding strips us of integrity and legitimacy in the arena of scientific discourse. Far from promoting "scientific freedom and balance", this presumption tars any scientist who can be suggested to have worked with the private sector. The only threat to academic freedom that seems to have materialized from the Berkeley/TMRI collaboration is this attitude towards scientists who might have industry links.
I, on behalf of the authors of our Brief Communication2, state unequivocally that funding from TMRI has absolutely nothing to do with our criticisms. Worthy and co-authors are incorrect. Two of my co-authors of ref. 2 (Hake and Hay) do not receive any industry funding. Funding information for the Freeling lab (Braun, Freeling, Lisch and N. K.) is transparent and public (see http://plantbio.berkeley.edu/~freeling/labweb/fund.html); less than a quarter of it is from industry.
As Worthy et al. state, Chapela and Quist are "leading critics" of the TMRI agreement. Chapela is a board member of PANNA (http://www.panna.org/panna/about/board.html#ihc), an advocacy group opposing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It is a double standard to accuse us, but not Quist and Chapela, of a conflict of interest.
Our letter was a critique of poorly conducted and interpreted science and was not pro- or anti-GMO or industry. We simply corrected what we think is bad science. Even if we were in the pockets of industry, Quist and Chapela's published results4 would still be artefactual.
It is highly unusual for Nature to publish a paper whose principal conclusion is shown to be not necessarily false but unsustainable on the basis of the reported evidence. The paper was not formally retracted by its authors or by Nature. In the circumstances, Nature considered it appropriate for the record to make clear to readers its revised view of its original decision to publish.
The independence of our editorial decision-making from partisan anti- or pro-technology agendas and from commercial interests is paramount in our role as a journal.
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Last Updated on 7/1/02