Scientific conflicts of interest have been in the news a lot lately.
For example, a federal judge recently ruled that various members of the FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee had conflicts of interest and, consequently, the chairman and three other members of that committee resigned.
And then there was the case of the scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who failed to disclose, in his scientific papers related to global warming, his conflict of interest over the more than $1.2 million he had received from the fossil-fuel industry; according to the New York Times, Wei-Hock Soon violated, in at least eight cases, the ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.
In its ethical guidelines for authors submitting manuscripts, Science requires clear disclosures of “…any affiliations, funding sources, or financial holdings that might raise questions about possible sources of bias.” Annual Reviews requires the same but goes into some detail on “factors that might be viewed as biasing a literature review” including:
“Employment, professional affiliations, paid consultancies, membership in related advocacy organizations;
Funding, support, and/or grants received within the past three years;
Significant financial holdings or patents.”
So, according to Annual Reviews, not only scientists who are employed by biotech “life sciences” companies, but also academic scientists who utilize the techniques of genetic engineering to produce genetically engineered (GE) organisms (AKA genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) and who have received any grants or other funding for that research within the past three years, all have potential conflicts of interest on the subject of GE organisms.
In fact, according to Annual Reviews, I myself have potential conflicts of interest when it comes to GE crops because, for one thing, I’ve been granted a few U.S. patents that involve genetic engineering of various plant species.
But having potential conflicts of interest doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. As per Annual Reviews: “A potential bias does not mean that the work presented has been compromised, nor does it disqualify authors from publication….” Rather, the point is to make an “effort to provide readers with information relevant to factors that might be viewed as biasing….”
In other words, conflicts of interest are all about what readers view as bias, i.e. bias is in the eyes of the beholder.
Well, this beholder has viewed many of the “stands” on genetic engineering taken by industrial and academic genetic engineers over the last 20 years as motivated by “conflicts of interest.”
Here are a few:
“It’s just an extension of traditional breeding, only more precise.” Without further elaboration, especially of the imprecisions of genetic engineering such as insertional mutagenesis, vector “backbone” integration, rearrangements of inserted DNA as well as “landing site” DNA, etc., this statement not only smacks of conflict of interest but also lacks scientific basis since the biological processes underlying traditional breeding and genetic engineering are very different.
“Regulation of GE organisms is onerous in the United States.” In addition to its economic implications, this statement ignores loopholes in the U.S.’s “coordinated” regulatory system so large that tens of GE products are now starting to fall through its cracks (as commendably pointed out recently by Camacho et al.).
“Consumers are not well informed about genetic engineering and its potential to solve agricultural problems.”
I find this last example particularly vexing. In my opinion, it represents nothing more than “conflict-of-interest-driven” wishful thinking. These wishful thinkers have had more than 20 years to inform consumers about this technology and its potential and, therefore, if consumers are uninformed (and whether vocal opponents are truly uninformed is certainly debatable) then the promoters of genetic engineering are at least partly to blame. Even worse, genetic engineers have had 20 years to demonstrate the technology’s potential for solving difficult agricultural problems and what have they got to show for those two decades?
With exceptions of minor crops like virus-resistant GE papaya and GE squash, the answer to that question is GE crops that primarily contribute to industrialized, unsustainable agriculture and the very difficult agricultural problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds, a problem undoubtedly made significantly worse as a result of wide-spread cultivation of GE crops.
From my point of view, instead of “feeding the world,” GE foods are being fed primarily to Earth’s non-human animals…except in the U.S., of course, where lack of labeling ensures that people are eating them too.
So I, for one, am tired of hearing about the “potential” of genetic engineering.
Consumers like me want transparency and trustworthiness, not rhetoric and wishful thinking.
Therefore, I suggest that genetic engineers, both industrial and academic 1) admit their potential conflicts of interest and 2) be more mindful of telling the whole truth about it, warts and all. That, together with a re-vamping of the system for regulating GE products in the U.S. and–for the sake of transparency, capitalism and democracy–labeling them, would go a long way toward “depolarizing” the current debate engulfing GE crops, GE animals and GE foods in general.
Commercializing a GE product that consumers could embrace for its benefit(s) to individuals and/or to society as a whole, and promoting it with transparent labeling, wouldn’t hurt either.