`Brain drain' of GM food experts forecast

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SCIENTISTS HAVE warned that the public could lose the services of Britain's best scientific advisers on GM technology over unfair accusations that they are too close to the biotechnology industry. And Arpad Pusztai, the scientist who caused a furore by claiming that the public are guinea pigs in a mass experiment into GM food, is planning a fightback against attacks on his credibility.

The anti-GM food lobby has claimed that senior scientific advisers to the Government have a vested interest in promoting GM issues because of research grants their institutes receive from biotechnology companies.

Members of scientific advisory committees have to declare any personal and "non-personal" interests - which covers research funding to their institutes and being paid freelance consultancies

Almost every academic member of the Food Advisory Committee (FAC) and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) has declared non-personal interests, which could appear to conflict with the objectivity of their advice.

However, Sir Colin Campbell, chairman of the FAC, said such interests do not affect the impartial nature of the advice these scientists give. "The accusation that members have commercial ties is a sweeping generalisation," he said.

There is a danger that scientists, who give their advice on an unpaid basis, will step down from government committees because of the nature of the unfair accusations levelled against them, Sir Colin said.

"The accusations are sometimes malign in the way they are phrased. If these scientists are trawled through the press with such accusations, they will leave," he said.

Professor Janet Bainbridge, who chairs the ACNFP, said all links between scientists and industry are open and transparent. "I want the best scientific advisers I can get and, if this criticism goes on, the scientists are going to say, `I don't need the hassle'. They are not in it for the money after all," she said.

Meanwhile, Mr Pusztai plans to release on the Internet this weekend the confidential reports of the six anonymous referees who were commissioned by the Royal Society to assess his work on rats fed GM potatoes. The public, he said, will be able to make up their own minds on the Royal Society's conclusions damning his work, which were based on the reports of the six referees.

Dr Pusztai, a former scientist from the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, claimed in a television interview last year that the potatoes stunted the rats' growth and damaged their immune systems. A panel of named experts drawn together by the Royal Society said on the basis of the six anonymous reviews that Dr Pusztai's work was fundamentally flawed and that no meaningful conclusions could be made.

Dr Pusztai said yesterday he viewed the Royal Society investigation as a "kangaroo court" that failed to look at all the evidence he gathered on the GM potato experiments.

"I'd very much like to know the names of these referees. I don't regard them as my peers unless I know who they are," Dr Pusztai said. "I've published 276 scientific papers. I know exactly what I'm talking about because I've refereed scientific papers all my life. I don't think the Royal Society has a leg to stand on."