The GM plot: Scientist tried to sabotage work of top academic who is a sceptic

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The Independent Online

Secret moves were made by a senior pro-GM scientist to sabotage the career of another academic who was sceptical about GM crops and food, it was alleged yesterday.

The pro-GM scientist tried to get the sceptic, Andrew Stirling from Sussex University, dropped from a research project by approaching the project's funders and rubbishing Dr Stirling's work. He failed, and Dr Stirling was later informed of the approach.

The source of the allegation was remarkable. It came from the website of the government's official GM science review, in minutes endorsed by the review chairman and the Government's chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David King.

The accusation is one of the most serious in the past five years of bitter public and scientific disputes about genetically modified organisms. It has sometimes been suggested that pressure has been brought to bear on GM sceptics to moderate their views, by senior GM-supporting scientists.

The fact that Sir David takes the new allegation seriously gives it added force.

Dr Stirling, 42, an expert on risk assessment at Sussex's science policy research unit, is a member of the GM science review panel. The panel published a report earlier this week which concluded that GM foods posed little risk to human health but warned that GM crops posed potentially serious risks for wildlife.

Dr Stirling was appointed on the recommendation of environmental and organic-farming pressure groups. The panel of 24 scientists and policy advisers includes members from both sides of the debate and others who could be described as neutrals. Their report, however, was unanimous.

The name of the man who allegedly attempted to damage Dr Stirling's career has not been made public - although it is known that he is not a member of the review panel - and yesterday Dr Stirling refused to disclose it.

But he did say the person concerned, who had not approached or threatened him directly, had made a clandestine approach to a "senior official of a major research-funding body".

He told The Independent: "It was an approach in which my research was disparaged in strong terms and my professional standing was undermined. And this was because of the sceptical position I was taking on the science review panel."

When he learnt of the approach, he thought it should be made public and accordingly informed Sir David before the panel's last meeting on 24 June. Sir David then informed the other panel members during the meeting.

Dr Stirling said: "This type of thing threatens to undermine the whole science advice process, and I hope that the public attention may help deter this type of pressure in future. As far as I am concerned, this particular attempt to exercise pressure has failed. It has been dealt with in the right way and it is time to move on."

But the sober language of the minutes published yesterday only serves to reinforce the dramatic nature of the allegation. The minutes state that the panel "depended fundamentally for its success on members being able to contribute in good faith, without fears that clandestine attempts may be made to undermine their research, their professional standing or their funding.

"The cumulative effect of such fears might easily serve to suppress open discussion, reasoned argument and substantive criticism of the kind whose importance the chairman had many times emphasised. Ultimately, such behaviour by individuals in privileged academic or regulatory positions threatened seriously to compromise the credibility and proper functioning of the science advice system. The panel strongly endorsed this.

"The chairman added that he understood from Dr Stirling that someone with an association with the Science Review had not been acting in this spirit and that if this was the case the chair deplored it. The panel concurred."

The minutes give several clues as to the person at the centre of the allegation, suggesting the person is in a "privileged academic or regulatory position" and has an "association" with the GM science review. This implies a senior pro-GM scientist, perhaps involved in regulation of GM crops and foods.

Dr Stirling sent a letter to Sir David in which he gave further details of the incident and its alleged perpetrator, although not naming him.

It was thought that the letter would be published alongside the minutes but it was omitted on the advice of government lawyers.

Sir David said last night: "I strongly abhor any attempt, which may have been made to undermine Dr Andrew Stirling's professional standing.

"Together with others, Dr Stirling made an important contribution to the work of the panel, not least in the structured way in which we addressed the issues.

"He ensured that each issue was carefully and methodically considered. I have the highest respect for him, and indeed have expressed this to him on several occasions before he raised this issue with me.

"The panel's deliberations were based on scientific evidence. No single individual or view was allowed to exert undue influence, or was ignored.

"Conclusions were reached by valid scientific argument and an evidence-based approach, properly accounting for uncertainties and gaps in knowledge.

"This produced an honest and unbiased report whose findings should be judged on their merits."