Every Christmas, Britain's Royal Institution runs a series of Christmas Lectures aimed at school children (specifically 11-14 year olds) and their families. The Lectures, which the RI describe as "our flagship events", as well as being delivered over 5 days directly to an audience of young people, are also televised nationwide by the BBC.
This year's Christmas Lectures are entitled "Food Matters" and come with such engaging titles as "The gourmet ape" and "Yuck or yummy". They include consideration of whether "chemicals in food" are dangerous.
The "truth behind this" will be delivered by Sir John Krebs, the controversial former head of the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Sir John will also be giving a lecture on "Food for the future" in which "John will ask whether new farming methods such as genetically modified crops will be the solution, or whether we will all have to become vegetarians". He'll also consider the question, "Will the future bring us the chocolate bar that treats heart disease or the mood-enhancing potato crisp".
The idea of the Christmas Lectures is to stimulate and entertain young people's thinking over important scientific issues. Their ethos is one that could be described as, all good fun based on all good science.
It's extraordinary in this context to consider what the review of Sir John's record at the FSA - commissioned by the FSA itself - determined. This review, conducted by Baroness Dean, concluded that the "vast majority" of people consulted felt that the FSA under Sir John had "deviated from its normal stance of making statements based solely on scientific evidence", when "speaking against organic food and for GM food". Baroness Dean stressed that "This view was expressed not only by stakeholders representing organic and GM interest groups, but by those who would be regarded as supporters and natural allies of the Agency".
So why, in these circumstances, choose Sir John to give the Christmas Lectures? Enter the head of the Royal Institution, and close ally of Sir John, Baroness Susan Geenfield.
(For more on Krebs; http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=73 )
GM WATCH profile
Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE is a leading neuroscientist and Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University. Since 1998 she has also been Director of the Royal Institution (RI).
She makes frequent TV and radio appearances, and has written popular science books and articles for the press. In 1998 she was awarded the Michael Faraday medal by the Royal Society for disseminating science to the public.
She has been described as 'our most visible scientist and, with her RI appointment, one of the most influential.' That influence is felt at the highest levels. She has been part of a consultation with the Secretary of State for Industry on science funding. She has also given a consultative seminar to Tony Blair on the future of science in the UK and has reported that, 'Tony Blair is really into the meshing of private and public scientific research.' She has also submitted at Blair's request a memorandum for his consideration on Genetics, Science and Risks. She is also a Forum Fellow at the World Economic Conference at Davos.
Greenfield has been at the heart of efforts to control how controversial scientific issues, like GM crops and cloning, are communicated to the public - most notably, via the Science Media Centre (SMC), which she played the key role in founding, and via her work with the largely industry-backed Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), whom Greenfield advises.
She was pivotal in the SIRC and RI co-convening a Forum to lay down 'Guidelines on Science and Health Communication' - a code for the media and for scientists as to how science stories should be reported. Among the Forum's members were Sir John Krebs , Chairman of the UK Food Standards Agency , Lord Dick Taverne who went on to become the Chairman of Sense about Science , and Dr Michael Fitzpatrick , who is part of the Living Marxism network.
According to another member of that network, Tony Gilland, in an article for Spiked, 'For Greenfield, the importance of such a code of conduct is clearly demonstrated by the frenzied media coverage generated by Arpad Pusztai's pronouncements on "poisonous" GM potatoes in February 1999. ...One of the problems in this instance, says Greenfield, was the media spotlight "focusing on one maverick".'
The SMC developed out of the work of the Forum, with Greenfield seeing the need to go beyond guidelines and have an organisation that would engage pro-actively with the media. Lord Bragg, President of both the Science Media Centre and the RI, made clear in a debate in the House of Lords that 'this issue has an economic dimension which is of crucial importance to this country. Put bluntly, if ignorance stirred to hysteria by sensationalism were to get in the driving seat, thousands of highly skilled and remarkable opportunities for self-fulfilment, wealth creation and knowledge formation would be lost. The more we know, the more we can make of what we know. There is the sniff of the born-again Luddite in the air, and that could be destructive to our future as a trading country whose increasing wealth depends increasingly on its brains. '
Bragg's linking of commercial considerations with the role of the SMC would appear to sit happily with Greenfield's known views. She has frequently expressed her approval of the highly entrepreunerial character of contemporary science . She happily identifies herself as one of those accused of 'selling their souls' to the private sector. Her attitude is best exemplified by her own research funding where she not only secured GBP20 million pounds from a pharmaceutical giant (the then Squibb Corporation) for her Oxford Department, but has since co-founded her own privately funded firm, Synaptica, which aims to become a leading neuroscience-based biotechnology company within five years.
A Price Waterhouse Cooper report takes Synaptica as a model for how scientists can gain greater financial rewards out of their biotechnology research: 'Last year, for example, The Sunday Times (January 30, 2000) reported that Dr Susan Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution, had taken out a patent on a naturally occurring brain molecule which could hold the key to curing Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. Oxford University, where Dr Greenfield is also Professor of Pharmacology, has taken a 30% stake in Synaptica, the company Greenfield and her colleagues set up to research the peptide before selling the results to a pharmaceutical operation. This approach like that in many biotechnology start-ups clearly involves assuming a much bigger share of the risk/reward ratio than is normally the case in Pharma, yet the industry needs just such people. We predict that a growing number of companies will therefore adapt the model for themselves and that the research scientists they employ will ultimately have a financial as well as a personal stake in the molecules they are studying.'
In one of her Millenium lectures, Professor Greenfield defined one of the key criteria for 'good science' as better industrial exploitation of 'the real practical advances that arise from research.' She complained that UK performance was only 'respectable without being spectacular' in this area. She measured this in terms of the number of patents being generated by UK science, concluding,' UK science needs to translate its strength into better industrial performance'.
To achieve more efficient commercial exploitation of scientific research you need a supportive environment in terms of both political policies and public attitudes. According to journalist Peter Riddell , 'This is allied to her belief in the need for more inter-changes between scientists and politicians and the media. In the end, it comes
back to understanding the potential and opportunities of scientific research. So there is no contradiction between Professor Greenfield’s role as a media star, as a distinguished scientist and as an entrepreneur. All three are linked.'
In order to forward her agenda Greenfield has shown a willingness to work with very diverse allies. On 9th May 2003 a London conference titled 'Panic attack: interrogating our obsession with risk' was held at the RI. It was advertised as being organised by Spiked with the RI and with the far right pro-technology group Tech Central Station. Michael Fitzpatrick and Bill Durodie were among multiple contributors to the event who were part of the Living Marxism network. Peter Marsh, director of the Greenfield-advised SIRC was another contributor and the SIRC were also named as a sponsor as were the far right International Policy Network .
This is not the only time that Greenfield has actively cooperated with the Living Marxism network, whose members eulogise science and technology and want no restrictions on cloning or genetic engineering. In summer 2000 Greenfield was the co-convenor with Tony Gilland and Helene Guldberg, two prominent members of that network, of Interrogating the Precautionary Principle. This event was organised by the Institute of Ideas and held at the Royal Institution.
It is in this context that the long involvement in the Living Marxism network of Fiona Fox, the director of the Science Media Centre - an organisation which Greenfield says the RI served as 'midwife', needs to be seen.
It is not just Greenfield's dubious alliances that are open to question. Jon Turney, who teaches science communication in the department of science and technology studies at University College London, describes Greenfield's attitude to communicating science as both dangerous and unhelpful.
Turney writes, 'if large numbers of people fail to achieve some ideal of scientific literacy this may be because they have got the message that they have no real purchase on scientific decision making, not because they are incapable of mastering technicalities.' (How Greenfield got it wrong)
Greenfield's outlook may have been affected by her marriage (until 2003) to Peter Atkins, the SmithKline Beecham Fellow and Tutor in Physical Chemisty at Oxford. Atkins has been described by the writer and journalist Bryan Appleyard in an article about the science establishment's 'attack dogs' 'fired by the ideology of scientism as 'AlScientism's most crazed ideologue' . (Mugged by the science mafia, Sunday Times, November 30, 2003)