Networks of Influence: PR, Lies and the Biotech Industry
In their book 'Deceit and Denial' Markowitz and Rosner (2002) illustrate how the US Manufacturing Chemist’s Association (MCA) sought to change the terms of the debate over the chemicals industry after World War 2 by highlighting how "feeding the world will depend on the use of chemicals" (p. 144). Five decades later the same sort of sentiment is used to justify the development of biotechnology. Did chemistry therefore fail?
Perhaps it is better to view both sets of claims as rhetorical, rather than scientific, statements which show how science and technology are far from neutral, as are the economic ramifications of their development. Thus despite lead being shown to be dangerous in 1918 the lead industry engaged in a 35 year advertising campaign to promote lead paint and stem their industry's decline.
In relation to biotechnology a plethora of organisations have been established internationally and nationally to promote the use of new genetics across a range of different industrial sectors, although predominantly focusing on healthcare and agriculture.
Some of the UK based organisations include the Scientific Alliance (SA), Sense About Science (SAS), the Institute of Ideas (IoI), International Policy Network (IPN), the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), Science Media Centre (SMC) and Cropgen (Rowell 2003b).
The establishment of such promotional organisations tends to contradict the very conceit of science that it is only valid in objective terms. Why therefore does it need rhetorical promotion?
For example, in a May 2004 Guardian comment piece Dick Taverne (Chair of SAS) attacked organic farming claiming that it is essentially the cause of starvation in the world for sidelining genetically modified (GM) crops. The preposterousness of this claim is not worthy of consideration since Taverne has either not bothered to read about the subject properly or was using the forum to push his point of view. Thus in 2003 the BBSRC (the biological sciences public funding body) was only funding 1 organic farm project against 26 GM farm projects (Monbiot 2003). Perhaps more worrying is that the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology even wanted to ban newspapers from printing headlines that were critical of GM (Smith 2004).
Delving behind Taverne's comments reveals a network of people organised to promote a specific approach (biotechnology) to solving our problems (ill-health and hunger), an approach that appears to ignore both basic scientific research and democratic sovereignty.
However, it is nothing new as it is merely the most recent indication of how the public relations (PR) industry is used to promote corporate concerns over those of citizens and consumers.
For example, earlier this year GeneWatch highlighted how British American Tobacco (BAT) had invested £6.6 million between 1990-95 in research designed to find a "genetic predisposition" to lung cancer. GeneWatch went on to argue that this research funding was a deliberate policy on the part of BAT to shift responsibility onto consumers and away from the company, thereby externalising any economic costs i.e. lung cancer treatment (Observer May 2004).
This paper is therefore going to trace the PR strategy surrounding the biotech industry and try to show how it impacts upon the developments in science and technology. It will also seek to explicate the economic underpinnings of this strategy and the benefits that accrue to actors and corporations that support this system.