FoE urges UK to disclose more of GM crop trial data

Abstract • AUGUST 2001 • VOLUME 19 • nature biotechnology 699 the purpose of the report is to provide a practical guide to potential conflicts for both universities and industry collaborators, as well as to describe some success stories that can be used as models of best practice. Leventhal acknowledges that universities need to preserve their traditional independent role “and not become a job shop for industry.” However, Mildred Cho, a professor of bioethics at Stanford University who has published several papers about conflicts of interest among medical researchers, says the report assumes academic–industry relationships are a good thing and doesn’t go far enough in exploring potential downsides, such as increasing secrecy by researchers who want to commercialize their own research, and the drift of science from basic to applied research. A particular concern, says Cho, is that the research agenda in academic–industry relationships, especially in biomedicine, is already skewed toward marketable products rather than basic research. “People will choose studies that are more easily funded,” says Cho. “It may not be reasons for personal financial gain, but because it’s more easily and more quickly funded.” Sheldon Krimsky, professor of urban studies at Tufts University (Boston, MA) says the report is “rather tepid” and he echoes Cho’s concerns. He notes that industry-funded research is skyrocketing—data from the National Science Foundation (Washington, DC) shows total R&D at University of Texas at Austin, for example, increased by 10% between 1992 and 1999, while its industryfunded R&D increased 700%. Krimsky says that certain types of research have been shown to correlate with bias (JAMA 280, Oct. 20, 1999), and that research projects—especially in biomedical sciences—are increasingly of the short-term “get-to-market” variety, with less research on preventative aspects of disease, and more on diagnostics and therapies. “Anyone who fails to understand that corporations are beginning to have undue influence on universities has his or her head in the sand.” The report, he says, fails to answer the questions, “When does a university become a contract arm of the private sector,” and “what will that do to the traditional norms of academic science?” Moreover, “The language of the report is vague and leaves everything up to negotiation and case-by-case review—by the institution that benefits from the contracts and equity partnerships.” Krimsky says there is a role for industry funding of academic science, but there must be strong safeguards—from government, universities, and professional journals and societies—to protect the university from undue influence. While institutions reading the report may take heed of some minor The latest skirmish at the edges of the UK GM crops war is unlikely to affect the progress of the field trials, although it may have some implications for areas of erstwhile confidentiality in the approval process for agrochemical herbicides and pesticides. At the end of June, the UK’s newly formed Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA; London) gave Aventis CropScience (Frankfurt, Germany) 14 days to seek a court injunction to prevent department officials disclosing environmental data on the performance of Aventis’ broad-spectrum herbicide, glufosinate ammonium. As Nature Biotechnology went to press, the company was in the throes of assembling its case. The government’s ultimatum to Aventis comes at the end of a year in which the environmental action group, Friends of the Earth (FoE; London), has been trying to obtain environmental data submitted to the UK’s Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD; part of DEFRA) prior to the granting of an experimental use permit to use glufosinate in trials of glufosinate-tolerant GM maize and oilseed rape. Under European umbrella legislation, the Environmental Information Regulations, regulators are obliged to make publicly available non-commercial data underpinning their decisions on full, commercial approvals. What concerns FoE is that although glufosinate has been in commercial use in the UK since 1991, its approval is only for use as a pre-harvest dessicant. This means that the compound is applied late in the growing season to dry out the crop and facilitate harvesting. In the GM crop trials, the herbicide would be used much earlier as a post-emergence weed-killer. “We are concerned about the winter performance of glufosinate,” Bebb says, “because of concerns that it may leach into groundwater.” Aventis’ formal data sheets state that glufosinate has a “Risk of leaching if clay content [of soil is less than] 5%,” something that FoE says may occur, particularly in sandy soils. Aventis argues, however, that glufosinate a university’s contributions to regional economic development. But Cho argues that some of these are legitimate, especially when it comes to maintaining the independent mission of a university. The report “doesn’t seriously address how to remove these barriers in a way that will maintain integrity of research,” she says. Of the five case studies in the report, the 20year agreement between the drug discovery division of Monsanto, now Pharmacia (St. Louis, MO), and Washington University (St. Louis, MO) is held up as a model. Under that pact, the university has limited Monsanto’s support to 5% of its research budget, in return for first rights to licensing any resulting discovery. Whereas the 1998 deal between Novartis (Basel) and the University of California (Berkeley, CA) is described as the other end of the spectrum. That agreement allows Novartis to contribute 30% of one department’s research budget in exchange for first rights to all discoveries, including ones not funded by Novartis. But both Cho and Krimsky say it’s too early to tell whether either of these agreements has biased research projects. The text of the report is available at Eric Niiler, San Diego issues, such as how long to allow trade secrecy or when to restrict scientists from accepting a contract, he says, “The report that was produced will have no impact on public policy.”

DOI: 10.1038/90723

Cite this paper

@article{Hodgson2001FoEUU, title={FoE urges UK to disclose more of GM crop trial data}, author={John Mc B Hodgson}, journal={Nature Biotechnology}, year={2001}, volume={19}, pages={699-700} }