Below is the full text of the leaked letter to Tracey Brown, the Director of Sense About Science (SAS), from Clare Matterson, Director of Medicine, Society and History at the Wellcome Trust. It concerns the Sense About Science Working Party on peer review, which has just published its report, and why the Wellcome Trust was refusing to either participate in the Working Party or support it financially.
In an earlier bulletin we exposed the lies in the Working Party's just published report about Ewen and Pusztai's research. The report falsely claims Ewen and Pusztai's research had been rejected by "another leading journal" prior to its publication in The Lancet. This is totally untrue as Dr Pusztai has confirmed to us:
"I can confirm that we always intended our paper for the Lancet and have NEVER submitted it to another major or minor journal."
The report also fails to make clear that Ewen and Pusztai's paper was successfully peer reviewed, ie that it is precisely an example of a paper going through the very process that the Sense About Science report claims to be seeking to uphold.
This failure in the report is clearly intentional and ties in with the way the report constantly seeks to imply that public concerns about GM are based on wild and bogus scientific claims rather than credible scientific research.
The following letter suggests a decided unease within sections of the science establishment about the agenda and methods of those behind the report. Note, in particular, the very telling point made by the Medicine in Society Panel of the Wellcome Trust:
"The key issue being addressed by the [Sense About Science] study is the erosion of trust by the public in authority. The peer review process is only a part of this problem - much of the confusion is about risk and probability, compounded by Government using scientific information as if it were a definitive truth (for example in the case of BSE) to make policy;"
This raises very different issues to the complacent picture painted by Sense About Science of everything in the garden being lovely if only an ignorant public weren't being misled by the media's credulous promotion of the bogus claims of maverick scientists.
The bogus claims belong to Sense About Science.
5 November 2002
Working Party on Peer Review
I am writing with regard to your invitation to the Wellcome Trust to be part of the Working Party on Peer Review and the request for funding. The Trust has taken informal advice on the proposal from our Medicine in Society Panel and it was then discussed at an executive meeting in the Wellcome Trust.
After careful consideration, we have decided that we do not wish the Trust to have membership of the Working Party or to provide any funding. We have come to this decision with a great deal of thought and I have attached a summary of the concerns raised by the Panel, which contributed to our final decision.
I would like to stress that we are in agreement with the Working Group that peer review is an important and vulnerable procedure. Further, there is general agreement that there is a serious study to be done to think about where it is going, how it is used and understood and how best to protect its underpinning principles. In that regard, the Trust's Policy Unit is carrying out some work looking at the peer review process for selection of grants.
Given the importance of the topic, Mike Dexter has asked that I copy this response to Brian Heap [Chair of the Sense About Science Working Party]. I wish you all the best with the work.
With best regards Clare Matterson
Director, Medicine, Society and History
cc: Professor Sir Brian Heap Dr Mike Dexter
The following points were raised in discussion by the Medicine in Society Panel:
The key issue being addressed by the study is the erosion of trust by the public in authority. The peer review process is only a part of this problem - much of the confusion is about risk and probability, compounded by Government using scientific information as if it were a definitive truth (for example in the case of BSE) to make policy;
The aims of the study - though laudable - are unlikely to be achieved, in particular the concept of 'popularising' peer review;
The proposed make-up of the Working Party is extremely narrow. It runs the risk of being seen as a closed and defensive strategy without opening the debate to a wider group of parties that may have differing definitions and views;
Concerns were expressed that the background commentary was based on many assumptions about behaviours rather than direct evidence. As part of this it was thought that the case selection in the background commentary was biased towards 'problem' cases, without acknowledging or considering where scientific outcomes have been well received and used by the media;
There are a number of other studies of peer review that the Working Party would find of interest. For example, the ESRC has carried out some work in this area and there is a major US study by Chubin on peer review.