The Pusztai Scandal Laid Bare
August 10. 2005
. . . on the 10th August 1998 the GM debate changed forever.
The story began three years earlier. That's when the UK government's Scottish Office commissioned a three-year multi-centre research programme into the safety of GM food under the coordination of Dr Arpad Pusztai. At that time there was not a single publication in a peer-reviewed journal on the safety of GM food.
Dr Pusztai, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was an eminent scientist. He was the world's leading expert on the plant proteins known as lectins. He had published three books and over 270 scientific studies.
He and his team fought off competition from 28 other research organisations from across Europe to be awarded the GBP1.6 million contract by the Scottish Office. The project methodology was also reviewed and passed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) - the UK government's main funding body for the biological sciences.
The research involved feeding GM potatoes to rats and monitoring physiological changes. By late 1997 preliminary results from the rat-feeding experiments were showing totally unexpected and worrying changes in the size and weight of the rat's body organs. Liver and heart sizes were getting smaller, and so was the brain. There were also indications that the rats' immune systems were weakening.
Dr Pusztai was interviewed for a programme about GM food being made by Granada TV's 'The World in Action'. The filming took place in late June 1998 with the agreement of the director of the Rowett Institute, Professor James, and in the presence of the Rowett Institute's press officer. The World in Action interview was broadcast on the evening of Monday 10th August 1998.
Later that evening Professor James congratulated Dr Pusztai on his TV appearance, commenting on 'how well Arpad had handled the questions'. The next day a further press release from the Rowett noted that 'a range of carefully controlled studies underlie the basis of Dr Pusztai's concerns'. However, reportedly following two calls to the Rowett from the Prime Minister's Office, the Government, the Royal Society and the Rowett launched a vitriolic campaign to sack, silence and ridicule Dr Pusztai.
He was accused of unprofessional conduct because his work had not been peer-reviewed. However, his research subsequently passed peer-review after being reviewed by a larger than usual panel of scientists and was published (see below). Many people also take the view that in circumstances where research is giving rise to serious concerns that may need to be addressed sooner rather than later, it is acceptable for scientists to act as whistle blowers and draw attention to the problems their research is uncovering even prior to peer-reviewed publication.
The Government criticised the methodology of Pusztai's research despite the fact that this had been approved in advance by its own Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Neither the Government nor any other official body has ever repeated or refined Dr Pusztai's experiments to test the validity of his results.
The Royal Society and its leading Fellows were key players in the attacks on Dr Pusztai from the time he went public with doubts about the safety of GM foods. In February 1999, for instance, nineteen Fellows of the Royal Society condemned Pusztai, in all but name, in a letter published in the national press. Among the signatories was Peter Lachmann, who played a key role in the attacks on Pusztai.
Three months later in May 1999 the Royal Society published a partial 'peer review' of Pusztai's then unpublished research. This review was based not on a properly prepared paper, like that Pusztai and his collaborator Ewen submitted to The Lancet for peer-review, but on a far-from-complete internal report intended for use by Pusztai's research team at the Rowett Institute.
Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, described the Royal Society review as 'a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication of their work.'
The Royal Society's review was organised by members of a working group appointed by the Society in coordination with the Society's officers. The Royal Society claimed that anyone who had already commented on the Pusztai affair had been excluded from this decision making process in order to avoid bias. However, William Hill, Patrick Bateson, Brian Heap and Eric Ash, who were all involved, were all among the co-signatories of the letter condemning Pusztai that had been published in The Daily Telegraph back in February.
In addition, four key people involved, including the Chair of the working group, Noreen Murray, as well as Brian Heap, Rebecca Bowden and Sir Aaron Klug, were all part of the earlier working group that had issued the Royal Society's 1998 report supporting GM foods.
There were other issues of bias. For instance, William Hill, the chair of the Pusztai working group, was also the deputy chair of the Roslin Institute, famous for genetically modifying animals and for cloning Dolly the sheep. Roslin in turn had links to Geron Biomed for whom Lachmann consulted. Similarly, Noreen Murray was the wife of the co-founder of Europe's first biotechnology company, Biogen.
Undaunted by the Royal Society's attack on their unpublished work, Pusztai and his co-researcher, Prof Stanley Ewen, submitted their final paper on their experiments to The Lancet. It was sent to six reviewers, double the normal number, and a clear majority were in favour of its publication.
However, prior to publication the Lancet's editor Richard Horton received a phone call from Peter Lachmann, the former Vice-President of the Royal Society. According to Horton, Lachmann called him 'immoral' for publishing something he knew to be 'untrue'. Towards the end of the conversation Horton says Lachmann also told him that if he published Pusztai's paper, this would 'have implications for his personal position' as editor.
The Guardian broke the news of Horton being threatened in November 1999 in a front-page story. It quoted Horton saying that the Royal Society had acted like a Star Chamber over the Pusztai affair. 'The Royal Society has absolutely no remit to conduct that sort of inquiry.' Lachmann denied threatening Horton although he admitted making the phone call in order to discuss the pending publication.
The Guardian also talked of a GM 'rebuttal unit' operating from within the Royal Society. According to the journalist Andy Rowell, who helped research The Guardian article, Rebecca Bowden, who had coordinated the Pusztai peer-review and who had worked for the Government's Biotechnology Unit before joining The Royal Society in 1998, admitted to the paper, 'We have an organization that filters the news out there. It's really an information exchange to keep an eye on what's happening and to know what the government is having problems about . . . its just so that I know who to put up.'
The attacks on The Lancet editor and his decision to publish Pusztai's paper continued. Sir Aaron Klug, vigorously opposed the publication of Pusztai's research, saying it was fatally flawed in design because the protein content of the diets which control groups of rats were fed on was not the same as that of the other diets. Pusztai commented: 'In fact, the paper clearly states that ALL diets had the same protein content and were iso-energetic. I cannot assume that Sir Aaron is not sufficiently intelligent to read a simple statement as that, so the only conclusion I can come to is that he deliberately briefed the reporters with something that was untrue.'
Richard Horton remained unbowed. 'Stanley Ewen and Arpad Pusztai's research letter,' he wrote, 'was published on grounds of scientific merit, as well as public interest'. What Sir Aaron Klug from the Royal Society cannot 'defend is the reckless decision of the Royal Society to abandon the principles of due process in passing judgement on their work. To review and then publish criticism of these researchers' findings without publishing either their original data or their response was, at best, unfair and ill-judged'.
The attacks continue unabated. Peter Lachmann's successor as Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, Patrick Bateson, told readers of the British Association's journal Science and Public Affairs that The Lancet had only published Pusztai's research 'in the face of objections by its statistically-competent referees' (June 2002, Mavericks are not always right). Bateson, presumably deliberately, inverts the fact that Pusztai's Lancet paper successfully came through a peer review process that was far more stringent than that applying to most published papers.
In an article in The Independent, giving the Royal Society's views on why the public no longer trusts experts like themselves - 'Scientists blame media and fraud for fall in public trust' - Pusztai's work is categorised as 'fraud'. Pusztai's peer reviewers, we are told in the article, 'refused it for publication, citing numerous flaws in its methods - notably that the rats in the experiment had not been fed GM potatoes, but normal ones spiked with a toxin that GM potatoes might have made.' Almost every word of this is straight fabrication. There was no fraud. Rats were fed GM potatoes. The publication of Pusztai's Lancet paper was supported by a clear majority of its peer reviewers, etc. etc. It is particularly ironic that such a travesty should have been published in an article reporting the Royal Society's concerns about the reporting of science in the media.
In February 2002 a new Royal Society report on GM crops was published as an update to the Society's September 1998 report on GM. The expert group which produced it was much more broadly based than in '98 and the report took a noticeably more cautious line. 'British Scientists Turn on GM Foods', ran The Guardian's headline on a report which included an admission 'that GM technology could lead to... unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional status of foods'.
The expert group was chaired by Jim Smith, who had sat on the Society's Pusztai working group, and tucked away inside the report was a paragraph on Pusztai. Once again, it was designed to mislead.
The first part of the paragraph read: 'In June 1999, the Royal Society published a report, review of data on possible toxicity of GM potatoes, in response to claims made by Dr Pusztai (Ewen and Pusztai, 1999). The report found that Dr Pusztai had produced no convincing evidence of adverse effects from GM potatoes on the growth of rats or their immune function.'
The Royal Society report references the phrase 'claims made by Dr Pusztai' - claims it said it had reviewed - to the article published by Pusztai and Ewen in The Lancet in 1999. In fact, however, the Royal Society's partial review of Pusztai's research was published months before The Lancet article appeared. The Royal Society thus conceals the fact that it had only ever reviewed part of Pusztai's data, condemning him ahead of publication of his actual paper.
The 2002 report continued: 'It concluded that the only way to clarify Dr Pusztai's claims would be to refine his experimental design and carry out further studies to test clearly defined hypotheses focused on the specific effects reported by him. Such studies, on the results of feeding GM sweet peppers and GM tomatoes to rats, and GM soya to mice and rats, have now been completed and no adverse effects have been found (Gasson and Burke, 2001).'
But the Gasson and Burke paper, to which these further feeding studies are referenced by the Society, was not a piece of primary research but an 'opinion' piece written by two pro-GM scientists, Mike Gasson and Derek Burke. Worse, one of t he two further studies mentioned had not even been published, except by way of summary, ie it had never been fully peer-reviewed. In other words, the Royal Society uses an unpublished and un-peer-reviewed study to attack Pusztai, two years after it had condemned him for speaking to the media without first publishing peer-reviewed work.
In response to criticism, the Royal Society admitted that the work in question remained unpublished but said this was not a problem because, 'it had been discussed at international scientific conferences'. By this definition, however, Pusztai's research would have been equally validated before the Society ever launched its partial review as it had been presented at an international conference prior to the Society's review. Curiously, the Royal Society has also described the opinion piece by Gasson and Burke as 'primary research,' even though it is a literature review involving no lab work.
Andy Rowell, author of a book that deals extensively with the Royal Society's role in the Pusztai affair, writes, 'the fundamental flaw in the scientific establishment's response is not that they try and damn Pusztai with unpublished data, nor is it that they have overlooked published studies [supporting Pusztai's concerns], but that in 1999, everyone agreed that more work was needed. Three years later, that work remains to be undertaken... [A] scientific body, like The Royal Society, that allocates millions in research funds every year, could have funded a repeat of Pusztai's experiments.'
Nobody ever has.
Much of the information above comes from Andy Rowell's book, 'Don't Worry: Its Safe To Eat'.