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Independence and scientific integrity

This week, a well-respected academic has come in for criticism for writing an article at the behest of a large multinational company (Harvard professor failed to disclose connection). The main problem was that the company was Monsanto, regularly vilified by activists for what they consider to be a range of sins, including farmer exploitation and attempted dominance of the agricultural supply chain. The academic is Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project and Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard.

Unsurprisingly, this has unleashed a flurry of critical comments from NGOs and commentators, the main thrust of which is to persuade people not to believe anything by even the most prestigious scientist if they are in any way tainted by association with the company. As for the article itself, it appeared on the Genetic Literacy Project website (tagline: Science trumps Ideology) under the title Global Risks of Rejecting Agricultural Biotechnologyin December last year.

Professor Juma has made no secret of his support for the use of genetic modification in the developing world. In May last year, he had a similarly pro-GM piece published in the Guardian – Feeding Africa: why biotechnology sceptics are wrong to dismiss GM– welcomed by Monsanto (Monsanto Europe-Africa blog). However, critics point to links between industry and researchers which, in their view, undermine the credibility of their arguments.

There is always a supposition that he who pays the piper, calls the tune. In this case, however, there is no suggestion of payment, merely that the company in effect commissioned a series of free articles which supported their point of view and then promoted them. In a world of blacks and whites, that is quite enough for anti-GM activists to damn the messenger.

Independence and credibility are important issues, and cannot be ignored. But criticism purely on the basis of contacts and sympathies misses the point that what is really important is the qualification and competence of the writer. And why should money changing hands automatically reduce credibility. We all have to earn a living, and the great majority of us apply our professional skills as objectively as possible, not simply to confirm an employer’s or client’s preconceptions. In the long run, no-one gains from gains from an inaccurate analysis of the facts (arguably other than politicians and lawyers).

Everyone has an opinion on a given issue, and that is largely shaped by a broader world-view. In principle, the sifting of evidence by scientists should mean that objective judgements can be made and shared by all. However, as we know, scientific disputes can be as fierce as in any walk of life. Thomas Kuhn’s view of one established scientific paradigm only being replaced by another after a period of turmoil, crisis and then revolution seems more realistic than the purist view of Karl Popper that a theory could be disproved by a single (repeatable) contradictory piece of evidence.

While some researchers may indeed find a theory disproved to their satisfaction, overturning the existing paradigm is never as easy as that, especially when so many scientists have built their careers on creating and reinforcing it.