Ombudsman rules universities biased

September 2015

Photo Creative Commons
NGOs, MEPs, and journalists who do their homework have been raising concerns for some years that 'independent' advisers to government are failing to use independent sources to inform themselves.

For example, when Germany reviewed glyphosate herbicide for re-authorisation in the EU, it based its recommendation on a report prepared by the 'Glyphosate Task Force'; this is an organisation set up by agrichemical companies specifically to promote the re-registration of glyphosate, a chemical central to their GM crops and profits.

In the latter case there was a blatant conflict of interest, but it isn't always so obvious.

It was the Daily Mail that pointed out that, in the preparation of the report commissioned by the advisory 'Council for Science and Technology' which recommended fast-tracking GM crops in the UK, "all five authors have a vested interest in promoting GM crops and food - and some are part-funded by industry".

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was happy to accept an unpublished biotech industry-sponsored university study showing absence of glyphosate in human breast milk even although the finding was contradicted by independent tests on both sides of the Atlantic [1,2]. No doubt the involvement of a university in generating the data made them acceptable.

Historically this was true, but now things have changed radically. For example, Edinburgh University alone has formed 184 companies in the past five years. GM crops are a major part of the issue: universities are GMO patent holders and accept money from biotech companies for research, staffing, and buildings.

Recognising that universities are developing ever-closer ties with industry and are becoming commercial entities in regard to both their research production and the commercialisation of their results, the European Ombudsman has ruled that the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) must no longer assume that universities are independent when choosing its expert panels.

The EFSA was set up in 2002 in response to a crisis in consumer confidence following food and agricultural regulatory failures. Its function is to supply scientific advice to the European Commission's 'Directorate General for Health and Consumer Protection' (DGSANCO).

Responsibilities of the EFSA include risk assessment and communication of risk analyses (note that ethical and socioeconomic issues are outside its remit). It's vital that the scientific advice it gathers is independent.

Previously, the Authority was justified in its stance that "employment by a university has never been considered a conflict of interest", and that university researchers are the most independent because they are the "least directly engaged in commercial activities". Indeed, it has "one of the toughest declaration of interest requirements of any European Agency".

However, the EFSA's position reflects a "traditional, now outdated, understanding of universities" and the Ombudsman has suggested the EFSA revise its policies to reflect this increasingly commercial nature of the university.

Independence of expert advice is vital for food safety but also for building public trust in the EU. The Ombudsman notes
"If such trust is undermined, EFSA and the EU will cease to be legitimate in the eyes of citizens".

OUR COMMENT 


Industry providing the evidence to promote its own products coupled to the patent-holders dictating government policy to promote their own interests is not a good way to build trust. 


The 'Science Media Centre', which was formed to provide authoritative information on science to the media seems to be feeding the same compromised 'expert' advice to the public as the EFSA has now been advised to treat with realistic scepticism. 


Suggest to your MP that the Science Media Centre be revised to fall in line with the standards suggested by the Ombudsman to avoid mis-informing the public with commercially biased science and destroying public trust. 


Background:

[1] GLYPHOSATE IN BREAST-MILK - June 2014

SOURCES:
  • EFSA should revise conflicts of interest policy to reflect commercial nature of universities - Ombudsman, GM Watch 1.07.15
  • Sarah Hartley, Expertise and the changing nature of universities: Reflections on a recent European Ombudsman ruling,University of Nottingham: Making Science Public, 15.06.15
  • Sarah Hartely, 2015, Policy masquerading as science: an examination of non-state actor involvement in European risk assessment policy for gentically modified animals, Journal of European Public Policy
  • Reboot EFSA to Safeguard Independence, www.testbiotech.org, 11.10.11
  • EFSA questioned over independence on EDCs, https://chemicalwatch.com, 19.12.12
  • Don't Let Monsanto Deny Glyphosate Carcinogenicity!, Institute of Science in Society Report 3.08.15
  • Greens warn: German breast milk unsafe, www.thelocal.de, 26.06.15
  • World's Number 1 Herbicide Discovered in U.S. Mothers' Breast Milk, Sustainable Pulse 6.04.14
  • Uni forms record number of firms, Metro 24.08.15

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