New Zealand Science Media Centre exposed for censorship
15 April 2013
In an investigative exposé by The Press, the newspaper serving New Zealand’s second largest city of Christchurch, the Science Media Centre was found to be selectively using scientific opinion.
This practice violates its own terms of reference and may embarrass its public sponsor, the Royal Society of New Zealand.
In response to a publication in a peer-reviewed risk assessment journal by Jack Heinemann, Sarah Agapito-Tenfen, and Judy Carman on regulators’ mishandling of the risk assessment of new kinds of genetically modified crops and products based on “dsRNA molecules” ( http://bit.ly/14i7pyG), the SMC published harsh statements by two Australian scientists who appear ideologically opposed to any criticism of GM safety testing.
The SMC did not reveal at the time that at least one of the scientists, Peter Langridge, had a conflict of interest with DuPont, which develops crop plants that were the subject of the peer-reviewed study by Heinemann et al.
The conflict of interest lies in the fact that Langridge is head of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG), which has a direct collaboration with DuPont.
The other scientist, David Tribe, has a long history of writing blogs and running a pro-GM industry campaign.
Neither scientist has demonstrated expertise in human health or environmental risk assessment. They attacked the paper using unscientific and unsubstantiated statements.
The quote from Langridge published by the SMC was used by the New Zealand Food Safety Minister, Nikki Kaye, to deflect concerns raised in parliament by Steffan Browning, Green Party spokesperson on genetic engineering. At the time, Kaye considered that the quote constituted "significant" criticism of the Heinemann et al. paper.
Kaye evidently did not know about Langridge’s extensive conflicts of interest, or that the SMC had received other letters from scientists in support of the scientific quality of the study by Heinemann et al., as reported by The Press newspaper. The SMC refused to publish letters from those who supported the study, reported The Press, with Director Peter Griffin saying that it did not want to publish a “back and forth between rival scientists”. When those scientists challenged the use of Langridge and Tribe as rival scientists, they were rebuffed by the SMC.
SMC caught with its pants down
However, when SMC became aware that The Press had directly received a copy of one letter, from Assoc. Prof. Peter Dearden of Otago University, SMC did publish Dearden’s letter. That letter was the last to be received, on 8 April, while the other scientists had written between 3 and 7 April and were told that no further comments from scientists would be used.
The SMC sought no balancing comment to Langridge and Tribe, it admitted to the newspaper, because according to Griffin it wanted to put forward “the scientific community’s reaction to new research”. However it clearly did not want the full reaction from the scientific community, just the reaction that was critical of the peer-reviewed research.
SMC said that the were waiting for Food Standards Australia New Zealand to publish comment on the paper. The newspaper noted that “nearly three weeks after the Heinemann-led research was highlighted in The Press, FSANZ has not issued a response.”
The SMC terms of reference require it to be “bias-free”, “neutral in matters of policy and politics” and that say that “it will not act in a way that could reasonably be perceived to be supporting or opposing...issues subject to political debate”.
By providing selected quotes from scientists with demonstrable conflicts of interest and contributing that commentary to the political debate, it is clear that SMC has violated its terms of reference.
The question now is will the New Zealand Royal Society do the right thing and apologise on behalf of its media tool? Will it institute procedures and oversight that prevent this kind of behaviour in the future? If not, why not?